Ravens-Steelers: Whose defense is best?

The Ravens' Ray Lewis, left, and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu lead the NFL's two top-ranked defenses. Getty Images

One of the most physical rivalries in NFL history features the league's top two defenses. Again.

The Ravens come to Heinz Field with the top-ranked defense. The Steelers take the field with the No. 2 defense, just two weeks removed from the top spot.

Defense has defined this AFC North grudge match as much as devastating hits and down-to-the-final minute games. Defense is as much a tradition for these cities as eating a crab cake in Baltimore or a Primanti Brothers sandwich in Pittsburgh.

These aren't just the two best defenses this year. Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu and the rest of the Ravens and Steelers represent the best defenses of the decade.

So, which defense is the best right now? History says it will be settled late Sunday night.

Games between the Steelers and Ravens are determined by defense, especially lately:

  • In October 2010, after Joe Flacco's game-winning touchdown pass, Lewis sealed the Ravens' 17-14 win with an interception.

  • In December 2010, Polamalu stripped the ball from Flacco in the fourth quarter to set up the game-winning touchdown in a 13-10 Steelers win.

  • In a divisional playoff game in January 2011, Ryan Clark forced a fumble from Ray Rice and intercepted Flacco in a game-turning third quarter en route to a 31-24 Steelers victory.

  • In this season's opener, Haloti Ngata leveled Rashard Mendenhall to cause a fumble in the opening series of the third quarter, the most devastating of the team-record seven turnovers forced in a 35-7 Ravens win.

"Every time you go into this game, in one way or another, the defense is going to make plays. And that’s what we understand," said Lewis, the rivalry's unofficial historian who will play in his 30th game (including playoffs) against the Steelers on Sunday night. "We understand how great that defense is, and we come in with the same type of mentality on our defense. So, we kind of put a chip on our shoulders as well.”

Strangely, the biggest fan of the Ravens' defense might be Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "They are the best in the world right now," Tomlin said of the Baltimore defense.

The Ravens are currently first in yards allowed (263.3) and second in points given up (15.7). But the Steelers are right there, ranking second in yards (270.8) and third in points (17.4).

These defenses just don't budge.

"I am not ready to at least put us in the conversation with the Ravens’ defense," Tomlin said. "We are not even close to doing what they are doing right now. Maybe statistically, but the way they are generating splash plays sets them apart. They are slaying people, and we are a part of that."

Baltimore leads the NFL in takeaways with 16, seven of which came against the Steelers in the season opener. The Ravens aren't just taking the ball away, they're scoring, returning four of those turnovers for touchdowns.

The only disappointment with the Pittsburgh defense has been the lack of turnovers. The Steelers have taken the ball away three times this season, but Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has seen firsthand how the Pittsburgh defense affects games.

"Over the years, they’ve made those game-wrecking plays," Harbaugh said. "That’s what they’ve always done, and that’s the key to great defense.”

Even the ESPN experts are split over which defense is the best right now. Mark Schlereth picks the Steelers.

"Troy Polamalu, there is none better than him as far as what he can do from a coverage standpoint and disguising coverage," Schlereth said. "He's one of those guys when you look at him week in and week out, he just makes plays and confuses quarterbacks. Right now, he's the big difference-maker for me with confusing Joe Flacco."

Herm Edwards thinks it's the Ravens. "I like how they take the ball away. They've taken the ball away 16 times already. They don't allow you to score a lot of points. I like the way this defense is playing."

Historically, not much separates the two defenses. Since 2000, the Ravens and the Steelers rank atop the NFL in fewest yards and points allowed.

How close is it? The Ravens have allowed 17.0 points over that span. The Steelers have given up 17.1 points.

"Numbers will never lie," Lewis said. "That’s why you go into this game with the No. 1 and No. 2 defenses in football; it’s the way it’s going to always be, simply because of the way it’s built. Both of these organizations believe in defense, and that’s been their investment year, after year, after year. It’s defense."

Injuries -- three starting linebackers could be out for the Steelers -- could be a factor Sunday night. Perhaps the most impressive part of the Steelers' defensive effort has been the ability to dominate offenses despite enduring injuries to all three starting defensive linemen and three starting linebackers.

When healthy, the defenses see mirror images of themselves. To clog up the middle, the Ravens have Ngata and the Steelers have Casey Hampton. To get after the quarterback, Baltimore has Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh has LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. To get the game-changing turnover, the Ravens lean on Ed Reed and the Steelers rely on Polamalu.

"It’s a tremendous similarity, their style of play, our style of play," Suggs said. "I always said it: We are the two most physical teams in the NFL, and we are the only two teams that can play each other like that. When other teams try to come and do that, it doesn’t fare so well. We are so similar. They are our enemy, but even enemies can show respect."