Ravens 'D' looking for some payback

The Baltimore Sun

First place in the AFC North won't be the only thing on the line Monday night in Pittsburgh.

When the Ravens collide with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the bitter rivals will look to stake an early claim for best defense in the NFL.

The Ravens, the top-ranked defense in 2006, sit atop the league heading into Week 4. The Steelers, the No. 1 defense last season, are ranked right behind their divisional foe.

Asked whether there is any question the Ravens have the best defense in the NFL right now, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said, "I have no doubt."

The Ravens and the Steelers use aggressive 3-4 alignments. They have workmanlike linemen who hammer running backs. They have linebackers who crash off the edge to hit quarterbacks. And they have defensive backs who swarm to the ball.

This season, the Ravens' defense has scored as many touchdowns (one) as it has allowed. Pittsburgh can boast that it limited the Philadelphia Eagles to less than half of their scoring average in the Steelers' 15-6 loss Sunday.

"We're trying to re-establish ourselves as a solid defense," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. "A lot of people are saying that we're old and that we can't be a dominating defense or be feared. We're just going to line up every week and see where we measure at the end of the year."

To regain their reputation, the Ravens have to go to the place where they lost it last season.

Routed 38-7 at Heinz Field, the Ravens tied a team record with five touchdowns allowed.

They were embarrassed and beaten up. That game marked the first time in team history the Ravens had to play without both starting cornerbacks.

Now, with the defense healthier this season, it's time for the Ravens to inflict pain on others.

"It's not a secret that we have a gifted group," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We love playing with each other. When one of us goes down, we're hurt. But when we have a full corps, we can be rough."

Said Ravens first-year coach John Harbaugh: "Ever since the Ravens started playing football, they've played great defense. It's a tradition, and it's a challenge for them to uphold that tradition."

A look at how the defenses for the Ravens and Steelers stack up:

STOPPING THE RUN: : The foundation of both defenses is to shut down the ground game and bully offenses into being one-dimensional.

The Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 games, the longest current streak in the NFL. The Steelers are holding teams to 2.8 yards a carry.

The only difference is at nose tackle. The Ravens' Kelly Gregg is out with a cartilage issue in his knee. If the Steelers' Casey Hampton is sidelined with a groin injury, the defenses are even. If Hampton plays, the edge goes to Pittsburgh.

EDGE: : UNDECIDED

HITTING THE QUARTERBACK: : With Trevor Pryce collapsing the middle, the Ravens' pass rush has returned. They have recorded seven sacks, a total they didn't reach until the fifth game last season.

Pittsburgh doesn't have a force like the Ravens' Terrell Suggs, but the Steelers have more numbers. They can come in waves with linebackers LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons.

EDGE: : STEELERS, slightly

DEFENDING THE PASS: : When Ravens cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle are on top of their games, it's tough to complete passes, much less beat them deep. Quarterbacks are connecting on 38 percent of their throws against the Ravens (no other defense has held teams to less than 49 percent). Steelers cornerbacks Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend are average and can be beaten in single coverage.

At safety, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu is a terror all over the field. But the Ravens' Ed Reed is considered to be in a class by himself.

EDGE: : RAVENS, by a wide margin

CHANGING THE GAME: : The Steelers have players who can change games in Polamalu, Woodley, Harrison and James Farrior. The difference is the Ravens have players who change entire seasons.

Players such as Lewis, Reed and McAlister have been on defenses that have carried teams to the playoffs with little help from the offense. Whether it's Lewis clocking a receiver over the middle or Reed returning an interception to the end zone, the Ravens still have a daunting presence that is embedded in the defense.

EDGE: : RAVENS

ravens defense by the numbers

1: The Ravens rank No. 1 in five of the NFL's 11 major defensive categories (yards per game, yards per play, passing yards, passing yards per attempt and first downs).

2: Plays allowed over 20 yards

3: Drives inside the Ravens' red zone

6: Quarters the Ravens haven't allowed an offensive point (out of eight quarters)

8: Number of Ravens who have recorded at least one quarterback hit

14: Drives without giving up a first down out of 24 total series (58.3 percent)

21: Games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the longest current streak in the NFL

26.6: Opponents' quarterback rating. The next lowest is 45.7 (the Tennessee Titans)

RAVENS @STEELERS

Monday, 8:30 p.m.,

Ch. 13, ESPN Line: Off

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