D As in Dominant

Longtime defensive strong boys Pittsburgh and Baltimore met to decide the AFC North—and to settle the debate over which unit was the NFL's best this season. The answers are etched in steel
December 22, 2008

IN 50 YEARS as aplayer and a coach in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator DickLeBeau has conditioned himself to expect the unexpected. So after the 2006season, when Bill Cowher retired as coach and Mike Tomlin was brought in fromMinnesota as his replacement, LeBeau wasn't taking his job for granted despitea stellar reputation and the fine performance of his unit that season: No. 9 inthe league in overall defense and No. 7 in fewest points allowed. ¬∂ Most newcoaches coming from outside want to put together their own staff, and Tomlinwas a defensive backs coach tutored in the Buccaneers' Cover Two system—ascheme light years from LeBeau's heralded zone blitz. But there was no need forLeBeau to be worried about job security.

"I never gaveany thought to changing," Tomlin said last Saturday night, on the eve ofthe Steelers' AFC North showdown with the Ravens in Baltimore. "The reasonis this: I wasn't interested in taking steps backward in an effort to moveforward. To make any changes would have been to do that. We're a 3--4 team, wehave 3--4 personnel—arguably some of the best in the world at what they do inthat scheme. It wouldn't have been prudent to go about changing that."

Less than 24 hourslater at hostile M&T Bank Stadium, Tomlin's reasoning was borne out whenLeBeau's top-ranked defense limited the Ravens to season lows in total yards(202), passing yards (90) and first downs (12) en route to a grinding 13--9victory. The win gave Tomlin his second straight division title and Pittsburgha first-round bye in the playoffs. If they win their final two games, atTennessee and at home against Cleveland, the Steelers will have home fieldadvantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Sunday's battleprovided everything one would expect from the NFL's top-ranked defenses, withoffensive advances seemingly measured in inches rather than yards. Baltimore,which had averaged 30 points in its previous eight games, worked its way insidethe Pittsburgh 10-yard line three times yet never reached the end zone. TheSteelers had only three drives inside their opponent's 12, finally scoring thegame's only touchdown with 43 seconds to play. Even then, it took the replayofficial to determine that the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line onwideout Santonio Holmes's catch of Ben Roethlisberger's four-yard pass. Thelast-minute uncertainty didn't detract from the momentous Pittsburgh victory,its first in Baltimore since 2002.

As the Steelerswalked to the locker room afterward, one member of the defense barked,"Fourteen games in a row! Fourteen games in row! There shouldn't be nodebate now!" What he meant was, the 11--3 Steelers, who entered the gamewith the league's No. 1 defense, have held their opponents to less than 300yards of total offense in every game this season, tying the postmerger recordset by the Los Angeles Rams in 1973; and any talk that the Ravens' No.2--ranked defense is the better unit should cease.

THE DEBATE wasvalid, and it's sure to resume if Baltimore secures a wild-card berth and theclubs meet again in the playoffs. As for the rest of the NFL, only Tampa Baycan argue that its defense belongs in the same discussion with Pittsburgh's andBaltimore's. Since 2000 the Steelers have never finished out of the league'stop 10 in total defense, and the Ravens, like the Bucs, have done so only once(box, page 42).

Despite thehostile nature of the rivalry, there is a mutual respect between the two units,and they are more alike than players on either side care to admit. Bothdefenses play aggressively and pressure the quarterback; both use a base 3--4scheme; both are built strong up the middle, from nosetackle through the insidelinebackers to the safeties; and both attribute their sustained success toquality scouting, coaching and personnel. "When you get those things, youbuild continuity and tradition," says the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy,who as the Tampa Bay coach in 2001 hired Tomlin as an assistant. "They havesimilar systems, and they know how to draft for it. [Pittsburgh] scouts say,'O.K., [linebackers] LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison might not fit foreveryone else, but for us they do.'"

The Steelers, ofcourse, have built great defenses dating to the Steel Curtain that marked theirSuper Bowl teams of the 1970s, a unit stocked with such Hall of Famers asdefensive tackle Joe Greene, linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert andcornerback Mel Blount. Those squads played a 4--3 defense, but LeBeau is allabout the 3--4 zone blitz (box, page 38)—which is not to be confused with thefluid 3--4 that his counterpart Rex Ryan uses in Baltimore.

Ryan prefers toattack from every direction and out of multiple formations. At times on Sundayhe had eight players within three yards of the line of scrimmage; at others hehad only four. Sometimes the Ravens overload one side of the formation withfour or five players, leaving what looks to be a gaping hole on the other side,but someone will slide or sprint into the opening at the snap.

The Steelers, incontrast, are more straightforward and generate their pass rush primarily fromthe three down linemen and two outside linebackers (Harrison, 15 sacks;Woodley, 11 1/2). But when the time is right LeBeau will throw a changeup, ashe did on Sunday. With 4:28 to play, the Ravens were at the Pittsburgh 27,facing third-and-eight but in position for a field goal that would put them up12--6. Figuring the Baltimore blockers would focus on Harrison and Woodley,LeBeau had reserve inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons rush from the outside.Timmons's sack and strip of quarterback Joe Flacco knocked the Ravens back 14yards and out of field goal range.

"It was a zoneblitz, but we wanted to have something where we could get Lawrence matched on aback [in this case, Willis McGahee]," LeBeau said afterward. "Our[pass] defenders made the quarterback hold the ball for a second, and that gaveLawrence a chance to get around the back. It was a big play. He's delivered forus a lot of times."

So has LeBeau, anOhio native with a folksy drawl who is beloved by his players for his modestyand respected for his expertise. He played 14 seasons at cornerback for theDetroit Lions, retiring after the '72 season with 62 career interceptions(seventh alltime). The last 36 years he has spent coaching. "He alwaysmakes the right call," says nosetackle Casey Hampton. "He understandsfootball; he played football. A lot of coaches act like you're not supposed tomake a mistake, but he understands that stuff is going to happen in the game.There's never any yelling or getting mad. He says, 'Just go out there and doyour thing.'"

"Dick is theepitome of a team player," Tomlin says. "He has no ego. He just wantsto win. If I had come in and tried to change the defense, it would have beenabout ego. But we all have to check our egos at the door. I've worked with guyslike Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, and I viewed working with Dick as anotheropportunity to work with a brilliant defensive mind. Every day he's tinkering,trying to figure out how to do something better. He comes to work with anemphasis on getting better every day."

THOUGH THE Ravens'defensive tradition isn't as old or as glorious as the Steelers', it began totake root soon after the franchise relocated to Baltimore from Cleveland in1996. Operating out of a 4--3 scheme that year, the Ravens finished last intotal D, allowing 368.1 yards per game, but it was also middle linebacker RayLewis's rookie season and Marvin Lewis's first as a coordinator.

Marvin began toincorporate elements of the 3--4 he'd learned as the Steelers' linebackerscoach (1992 through '95), while player personnel boss Ozzie Newsome brought infree-agent tackle Tony Siragusa to control the interior line and end MichaelMcCrary to upgrade the pass rush. One of the game's better talent evaluators,Newsome knew the draft ultimately would be the lifeblood of the defense, soover the next three years he used 10 of his first 14 picks on defensiveplayers.

By the '99 seasonthe Ravens had the second-ranked unit in the league, and the following year aferocious, Ray Lewis--led defense allowed a record-low 165 points in theregular season to key Baltimore's run to the Super Bowl championship. Newsomekept adding pieces, spending first-round picks on safety Ed Reed (2002) andlinebacker Terrell Suggs (2003), who have become veteran leaders alongsideLewis. Since '99, Ravens defenders have earned 27 Pro Bowl berths, nine morethan the Steelers.

"We had a coregroup of guys when I was there, and they continued to build on it after Ileft," says Marvin Lewis, who became the Washington Redskins' coordinatorin 2002 and the Cincinnati Bengals' coach a year later. "They lost guyslike Adalius Thomas [to free agency in 2007], but there were others in placewho had been trained by the veterans [to know] this is our standard, this ishow we do it, this is what we expect."

The person doingthe teaching these days is Rex Ryan, son of Buddy, the master strategist whoseattacking 46 defense spurred the 1985 Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl victory.Rex, a longtime Ravens assistant who succeeded Mike Nolan as coordinator in2005, has tweaked the D to his liking, making it even more unpredictable andaggressive. He seemingly comes up with new pressure packages in his sleep, butone thing he refuses to change is what he looks for in a player.

"It's notnecessarily the position, it's the disposition," he says. "You've gotto have the right guys, the right mentality, to have consistency. Every now andthen you get a flash-in-the-pan team that shows up and has a decent year ondefense. But for the most part it's usually us and Pittsburgh right there witheach other, and I think it has a lot to do with the type of players we have—andthe mind-set of those players. There's a passion that both teams play with ondefense."

When Ryan screensprospects on their predraft visits to Baltimore, he sits them in front of avideo screen and shows highlights that illustrate how his defense works. ThenRyan asks each player whether he wants to be a part of that unit. Those slow toanswer are scratched from the Ravens' list. You can't be faint of heart andplay for Ryan.

As the onlyassistant left from the Super Bowl staff, Ryan also wants his players to bemindful of the defense's rich history. Printed at the bottom of each page andon the back cover of his weekly playbooks are the words UPHOLD THE TRADITION."It's something we want to feed into," says Ryan, 46. "Ourtradition is something I'm proud of—where we come from, where we've been andwhere we're going."

The pressure tolive up to such expectations is enormous. A newcomer must be willing tosacrifice physically, mentally and emotionally. Deion Sanders learned as muchwhen he came out of retirement and joined the team in 2004, a nine-time All-Prowith a reputation for avoiding physical contact. "He could see from theguys in that locker room that the Ravens play defense differently," saysDennis Thurman, Baltimore's secondary coach at the time. "Deion bought intoit. He made some plays for us that we never thought he would make. We can puton tape and show you some plays Deion made." Thurman pauses, then adds witha chuckle, "We can also show you some where he at least made theattempt."

WHILE THE hitscome just as hard in Pittsburgh, the 71-year-old coordinator of football's bestdefense has the benefit of looking at the game and his players with greatersensitivity—every year, for instance, Dick LeBeau recites The Night BeforeChristmas from memory to them—and his players respond in kind. Before a gameagainst Detroit in 2005, they hung his number 44 Lions retro jerseys around thelocker room; they wore his 44 again to the 2007 Hall of Fame Game in Canton,Ohio, to remind voters that LeBeau has yet to be enshrined there; and lastmonth they honored him for his 50 years in the NFL with a pregame ceremony. Ineach instance LeBeau wept.

The Steelersnearly moved him to tears again with their dominating performance against theRavens. LeBeau's voice was little more than a whisper when he talked about aunit still ranked No. 1 in total yards, pass defense and points allowed. "Idon't know if I've ever enjoyed a season quite as much as this one," hesaid. "If you've been in the league a long time and you don't appreciatethe numbers these guys are putting up—No. 1 across the board—you better findsomething else to do for a living."

The ABCs ofKick-Ass D

Over the past 10years the Ravens (led by Ray Lewis, left) and the Steelers rank one and two inthe NFL, respectively, in total defense. Here's how the two stack up, based ontheir accumulated numbers from 1999 through the first 14 games of thisseason.

Stat Category Ravens NFL Rank Steelers NFL Rank
Yards per game 280.6 1 281.3 2
Points per game 17.1 2 17.4 3
Rushing yards per game 87.1 1 92.1 2
Rushing yards per attempt 3.3 1 3.7 3
Rushes of 10+ yards 326 1 366 2
100-yard rushers 18 1 20 2
Rushing touchdowns 78 1 92 3
Passing yards per game 193.5 5 189.2 2
Passing yards per attempt 6.32 2 6.33 3
Pass plays of 25+ yards 230 11 186 2
Touchdown passes 171 3 174 6
Opponents' passer rating 69.9 2 73.8 3
Sacks 413 4 428 1
Interceptions 208 1 163 16
Years ranked in top 10 9   9  
Years ranked No. 1 1   4  

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PHOTOPhotograph by Damian StrohmeyerCURTAIN CALL Harrison, James Farrior (51) and mates held the previously high-scoring Ravens (including Le'Ron McClain) to three field goals and maintained the Steelers' status as the league's stingiest D. PHOTOJOHN BIEVEROUTSIDE THREAT Pittsburgh's zone-blitz scheme calls for heavy pressure from Harrison, who's responded with 15 sacks. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERFROM THE GROUND UP Like the Ravens, the Steelers are solid through the middle, where inside 'backer Farrior (right) roams. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)