A showdown of smash-mouth defenses on Christmas Day will likely decide the AFC North crown

By Andy Benoit
December 21, 2016

On a Monday night early in the 2008 season, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis put everything he had into a vicious hit on Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who lay on the field basically broken and would miss the final 12 games of his rookie season with a shoulder injury. As trainers tended to Mendenhall, ESPN play-by-play man Mike Tirico tried to initiate a meaningful discussion about the disconcerting extent of the violence.

Such was the nature of this AFC North rivalry, which was the NFL’s best rivalry from 2004 through ’11. The Steelers and Ravens played 18 times during that span, including twice in the playoffs. Each team won nine. The combined score totaled less than 45 points in 15 contests; 11 games were decided by no more than a touchdown.

In recent years the rivalry has opened up to include the Bengals, who emerged as the division’s chief foe. But with two weeks left to play this season, the Bengals are done and it’s Steelers vs. Ravens in the spotlight once more, with Sunday’s game likely to decide the AFC North crown.

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Both teams have the makeup to go deep into the playoffs. Though not as stingy the last two weeks, the Ravens (8-6) have the NFL’s most formidable run defense. The Steelers (9-5) are less stingy but, as expected, are ascending. Over the past five weeks, Pittsburgh ranks second against the run while allowing just 14 points an outing.

The Steelers have a better defense than what the Ravens saw in Week 9, a convincing 21-14 Baltimore win. Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier, now healthy, is the most explosive inside linebacker in football. No pure ’backer has better initial burst or multidirectional downhill movement. At outside linebacker, the rotation of mediocrity has ceased, and two headliners have emerged: the energetic Bud Dupree and 38-year-old James Harrison, whose body, maintained like a beloved ’55 Chevrolet Bel Air, has handled the rigors of playing 110 of 110 snaps over the past two weeks. Lining up between these men is Javon Hargrave, a third-round rookie with better penetration ability than his stout 6’2”, 306-pound frame suggests. And aligning behind them is Sean Davis, an improving second-round rookie whom coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler should consider moving from box safety to free safety. (This would bring Mike Mitchell down to strong safety, where his aggression is better served. The two men often filled these respective roles against the Giants Week 13 and it went well.)

The Steelers will surely have a better offense than they did in that Week 9 meeting as well. In the last meeting they went three-and-out on nine of their first 12 possessions. Those other three possessions ended with an interception, kneel down and, in an eruption, 21 yards on five plays before another punt.

Going into the season, everyone had a crush on Pittsburgh’s aerial assault. But injuries at wide receiver have taken a toll and Le’Veon Bell has been carrying the load. A powerful ground game is the perfect complement to a strong defense. Bell, with preternatural quickness and agility affording him the luxury of patience and vision, makes the rushing attack appear finesse. But structurally, it’s an attack built on brawn. When the Steelers aren’t running straight inside zone—between the tackles with double-team blocks at the point of attack—they’re going “counter,” with right guard David DeCastro and a tight end pulling out in front. This requires mobile athletes at those positions, but for almost everyone else it’s about imposing your will on man-to-man blocks, ideally at a favorable downward angle. Tight ends in this offense don’t just show up on “counter” runs; they’re surprisingly prevalent throughout Pittsburgh’s ground game. Half of Bell’s carries this season have come with at least two tight ends on the field. And about one-third of those carries have had three tight ends.

Inside zone and “counter” are two of the most classic runs, but “outside zone” is most common in today’s NFL. Every blocker works toward the perimeter in unison, trying to pin defenders back inside. The running back’s job is to locate a crease and make one cut. This is the approach Baltimore features—though not nearly enough. Six times this season the Ravens have finished with fewer than 25 rushing attempts in games where the score was mostly within 11 points. Two of those times came under Marc Trestman, which, people figured, was why John Harbaugh relieved him of his offensive coordinator duties in October. But inexplicably, the other four times have occurred under replacement Marty Mornhinweg.

Baltimore’s passing game is not sharp enough to carry an offense. Joe Flacco has been inconsistent in his drop-back mechanics and decision-making. The receivers have been hit or miss. The O-line has had to rely on rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis, or on their backups. (Stanley missed Weeks 4-7 with an ankle injury; Lewis has been out since Week 10 with an ankle injury of his own). Pass protection is often where inexperience shows most glaringly.

The irreconcilable part of Baltimore’s pass-happy approach is this offense is rich at running back. Terrance West and fourth-round rookie Kenneth Dixon are remarkably similar scatback types with good-enough vision and just enough strength to sustain drives between the tackles. If a playoff run is to happen, they’ll be at the forefront.

For football purists, this Week 16 matchup is a Christmas present like no other: two ascending, smash-mouth defenses and a pair of offenses whose fate relies on their ground games.

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