By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, November 06, 2011
So, moments after his team had just scored a touchdown to cut the Steelers' lead to 23-17, Coach Bill Belichick ordered an onside kick that told one of his former players all he needed to know about the makeup of the Patriots' team.
And reminded him why he loves the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
"You have three timeouts and the two-minute warming," former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "If you believe in your defense, why would you onside kick? I understand everyone is in love with points, but if your offense has one bad day, you're going to struggle. That's why I believe in having a power defense."
Belichick's decision to attempt an onside kick might have at least looked to be a wise move if his kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, had squibbed the ball the mandatory 10 yards. When he didn't, the Steelers took possession at the Patriots 37 and, after converting one third down, didn't give the ball back to the Patriots until 19 seconds remained.
One play later, defensive end Brett Keisel sack-stripped the ball from Tom Brady's hand, Troy Polamalu punched the ball out of the end zone from 19 yards away for a safety and the Steelers punched out the Patriots with a performance that was as impressive on offense as it was suffocating on defense.
"Look at how New England built their team," Harrison said. "You see them transition more into offense and scoring points and not spending money or bringing in players to be an elite defense.
"I always loved Baltimore and Pittsburgh because they built their team around defense and have players on all three levels. That's the thing I loved about Pittsburgh having great defenses. I always believed having a good defense gave you a chance, especially later in the year when you need a good defense.
"The problem with Tom Brady and New England, yes, with their offense, you will have success during the year. But, in the postseason, they have too much pressure on them because they know the defense is weak."
There are no such worries with the two AFC North teams that will meet tonight at Heinz Field.
While the National Football League spent the first couple weeks watching teams pile up points and passing records, the balance of power has shifted to where it always seems to land when the season gets past the midway point.
And nobody has played it better for the past decade than the Steelers and Ravens, teams who are to defense what Ali and Frazier were to boxing and Borg and McEnroe were to tennis.
Since 2000, the teams have combined to lead the NFL in total defense six times and scoring defense five times. And this year is no exception.
The Ravens lead the league in total defense (263.3 yards per game) and fewest points (110) and lead the AFC in sacks (25). The Steelers are second in each of the three categories and lead the NFL in pass defense. A year ago, they led the NFL in rush defense, scoring defense and sacks.
Defense has helped the Steelers win four consecutive AFC playoff games -- seven of the past eight -- and get to three Super Bowls in six years. The Ravens might have been to a couple of Super Bowls if the Steelers didn't beat them in the postseason in 2008 and 2010.
"I love going against a team that's like a one-sided team because you don't have to worry about either the offense or defense," said Harrison, a studio analyst for "Football Night in America" on NBC Sports. "The most dangerous teams are teams like Baltimore and the Steelers who are strong across the board. You don't want to see any one of those teams in the playoffs because you're one-and-out."
In a league dominated by teams with high-powered passing attacks, the Steelers and Ravens still adhere to the belief that defense ultimately wins championships, especially in an age when NFL rules favor offenses more than ever.
To keep up, the other teams in the AFC North division -- the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns -- are trying to follow suit.
The Bengals are 5-2 and tied for second with the Ravens because their defense ranks No. 4 in the NFL after being No. 1 just two weeks ago. And the Browns, who are 3-4, rank No. 5 in the league overall and second to the Steelers against the pass.
That's four of the top five defenses in the league, all in the same division.
"I think Pittsburgh and Baltimore have kind of set the blueprint for successful seasons with their defense, and I think the rest of us have copied and try to strive to be like those guys have been for a number of years," said Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who has used the draft and some key free-agent signings to build his unit that allows just 17.5 points per game. "Defense is important everywhere, but when it gets down to playing those games in November and December in our division, it's going to be really important."
"In this league as a whole, it's a means of survival," said safety Ryan Clark, who has been with the team since 2006. "You're not going to win games with bad defense. It's just the way the games are played in our division. Baltimore and Pittsburgh have historically been very tough defenses, but teams are understanding that's the way to win. Not every team can go out and score 30 a game like Green Bay does. And, even before Green Bay was like that, they had the No. 1 defense to get to that point. That's how you have to play to win games."
Understand, of course, the Steelers didn't make it to their past three Super Bowls until Ben Roethlisberger became their quarterback in 2004. And the Ravens, who won the Super Bowl in 2000, haven't been a legitimate threat to go back since quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice arrived in the same draft class in 2008.
But, make no mistake, the Steelers and Ravens survive with the defense. And there has been no greater proof than this year in Baltimore, where the defense continues to bail out an inconsistent offense with seven interceptions, an NFL-high nine fumble recoveries and four defensive touchdowns.
"Defense is a means of survival in every division -- if you don't have the pretty boy from up north," said Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs, referring to Brady. "If you don't have him, then you better have a good defense. Even that won't get it done for you. If you are 32nd in defense [like the Patriots], you are not going to be a pretty good team at all. Usually you have a chance if you have the NFL's golden boy on your team. But, with that aside, you definitely have to have a defense to make any kind of run."
Since 1999, the Steelers have allowed only 22 players to rush for 100 or more yards in a game, fewest in the NFL. The Ravens are second with 25.
Curiously, heading into this season, the Steelers had allowed just one 100-yard rusher in 55 games, although Rice has two of the past three.
When they won the Super Bowl in 2000, the Ravens did so with a run defense that ranked as the best in NFL history since the advent of the 16-game season, allowing an average of 60.6 yards per game. Last year, the Steelers had the third-best run defense in league history, allowing a franchise-best 62.8 yards per game.
The consistency of each team's defensive prowess is as uncanny as it is impressive.
"With our system, you have a good core of guys who have been in the system for a while," said inside linebacker James Farrior, who has been a part of three Steelers defenses that ranked No. 1 in the league (2004, 2007, 2008) since arriving in 2002. "A lot of times, we're able to teach it to the younger guys. That helps out a lot with the coaches. Players listen to players, and that's one of the good things we have around here -- good leadership. All the older guys take in the younger guys under their wings."
The Ravens defense had something of a lull after their defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, left to become head coach of the New York Jets. They were still stingy, but the unit became less aggressive.
Enter Chuck Pagano, their former secondary coach and a Ryan protégé. He was promoted to defensive coordinator this season to replace Greg Mattison.
Suddenly, the Ravens defense is beginning to look like the ones employed by Ryan -- using exotic blitzes from the corner, slot and just about anywhere on the field. After registering just 27 sacks in 2010, they already have an AFC-high 25 after seven games.
"Baltimore has built their team the same way as us," Clark said. "That's where their stars are -- the Ed Reeds, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, T-Suggs. Baltimore is one of the few teams where the defensive players are the guys."
Harrison said one of the reasons for the Ravens' defensive success is that they have game-changers at all three levels of their defense -- line (Suggs, Ngata), linebacker (Lewis) and secondary (Reed). The Steelers are built the same with five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton up front, Pro Bowl linebackers Farrior, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in the second tier and 2010 NFL defensive player of the year Troy Polamalu in the secondary.
"They're different teams, a different culture," Harrison said. "They try to build their teams a different way."
But usually with the same results -- winning
Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette Illustration
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac