For Steelers' and Ravens' defenses, wreaking havoc is an AFC North tradition

First place in the AFC North isn't the only battle being waged Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens play host to the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.

These division rivals are staking an early claim to another title: best defense in the NFL.

The Steelers rank No. 1 in fewest yards allowed. The Ravens rank No. 1 in fewest points given up.

Which hard-hitting and relentlessly blitzing defense is superior?

"Every time we touch the field, we have a standard. When we're out there playing defense, we want to be the best," Ravens defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. "Honestly, we watch what they do, and we know that they're great. Their defense is special. We're going to be competing against their defense, too. At the end of the year, we'll figure out who the best defense is."

"Different guys come in, but we understand the standard that's held up," Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. "Both teams come in with strong defenses. And a defense is usually gonna win this game."

This rivalry has been defined for nearly two decades by this fight for NFL defensive supremacy. Since 2000, the defenses for Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the top two in the NFL in total yards, rushing yards, scrimmage touchdowns, opponent passer rating and points.

The foundation was set by the bone-shattering hits by Ray Lewis and James Harrison along with the game-changing plays by Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed.

While those names now reside in the lore of this feud, a new wave of defenders -- Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey, T.J. Watt and Patrick Queen -- are carrying the tradition of turning interceptions into touchdowns, punching out the football to force turnovers and causing an endless amount of havoc.

It's become apparent that the only thing that the Ravens and Steelers despise more than each other is giving up a yard or a touchdown.

"Really, it's an identity that's been built by those two franchises," said Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety who is now an ESPN analyst. "Where if you come here, you play high-level defensive football. It's not just the schemes, because the schemes are different. It's really the team culture they built on that side of the football in how they play. The play style for those two teams: fast and physical."

In a year when teams are scoring at a record rate, the Steelers and Ravens have become two of the NFL's top teams by the strength of their defenses.

With a 6-0 record, Pittsburgh is off to its best start since its Steel Curtain days in 1978, holding teams to a league-low 286.3 yards per game. By limiting offenses to an NFL-best 17.3 points, Baltimore is 5-1 for the third time in franchise history, which includes the 2000 Super Bowl team that was driven by an historic defense.

What has separated the Steelers and Ravens from other defenses is how they attack offenses. They both rank in the top three in blitz percentage, sending waves of linebackers and defensive backs at quarterbacks.

"They've never shied away from who they are," said Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback who is now an ESPN analyst. "They are two teams who unapologetically are going to pressure you. They're two teams that dictate to you what you can do instead of vice versa. They never played scared. They always believe they got the best players on the field."

"It's just been hard-nosed football"

If NFL scheduling were up to Ben Roethlisberger, the bye week would fall immediately after any Steelers-Ravens game each year.

"It's tough," Roethlisberger said. "It's a physical one, it can be nasty at times. It's always been football in its truest form in the sense that it's never been dirty, it's never been nasty. It's just been hard-nosed football. This is one you always want your bye week to be after."

Roethlisberger, of course, is plenty familiar with the Ravens' defense, and even had his nose broken by Haloti Ngata in 2010.

But his own defense has been plenty nasty in all the right ways, too. And it's a nastiness that the organization has maintained over the years thanks to a foundational philosophy that uses early-round draft picks on defensive players and develops them in the Steelers' system.

"If they can't score, you can't lose," coach Mike Tomlin said, breaking out a new Tomlinism. "That's kind of the approach we take. But that commitment goes back to player acquisition, the development of schematics, the nuts and bolts things, if you will, when you build your program."

To build this current defense, the Steelers used their first pick on a defensive player in six of the last seven NFL drafts. Of those six players, three -- Watt, Bud Dupree, and Terrell Edmunds -- are regular starters and major contributors. Devin Bush, selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2019 draft, was a starter and wore the defensive headset before he sustained a season-ending ACL injury against the Browns.

The Steelers also drafted Ryan Shazier with the No. 15 pick in the 2014 draft, and he was on his way to being a cornerstone of the defense when he suffered a career-altering spinal injury.

"I think [General Manager] Kevin Colbert has done a great job since he's been here," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. "We go in there and we talk about the type of people we want on our team. Character is a major part of it. They've done a great job of getting guys who are very competitive, good athletically, too. We aren't passing that up, for sure."

Of the defensive starters, six have played their entire careers for the Steelers -- and before Bush's injury, that number was seven. Tyson Alualu, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson signed free-agent deals with the Steelers, while Fitzpatrick, traded to the team early last season, is the rarest exception to the Steelers' philosophy.

"They get used to what we ask them to do, if you raise them," Butler said. "That's what I mean by raise them, if you draft them and take them. We don't sign a lot of free agents. Haven't done that. We've done a few but not a lot."

Beyond looking for players with good character, the Steelers search for physical defensive players who can run. That combination shoots a player high up on the Steelers' draft board.

"I can't teach them to be fast, and I can't teach them to be physical," Butler said. "That comes from their parents -- their mother and daddy. That's what [we] look for quite a bit. Plus, the character part of it is big, and knowing football is big."

In building a defense with those types of players dating back to the Steel Curtain, the Steelers have rightfully earned a reputation as one of the best defensive organizations in the league thanks to the consistent culture in Pittsburgh.

"You can go through droughts as an offense," said Heyward, the Steelers' first-round selection in the 2011 draft. "But as a defense we feel like -- and I know probably Baltimore feels the same way -- when you have a strong defense, that gives you a chance in any game, and that's just a buy-in from year to year."

Ravens' aggressive rebuild

While this year's Ravens defense could rank among the franchise's most dominating, the construction of it was unlike any other.

With just two starters remaining from the NFL's No. 1 defense in 2018, Baltimore has been as aggressive and shrewd in making moves as its blitz-crazy defense. Over the past year, the Ravens traded for three Pro Bowl defenders -- cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive end Campbell and pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue -- in exchange for one third-round pick, three fifth-rounders (one is conditional) and a reserve linebacker.

Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta received a standing ovation from the entire defensive coaching staff last week when he notified them of the trade for Ngakoue.

"My favorite person in the world is Eric DeCosta," Baltimore defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale said. "I told him that personally."

Baltimore's boldest move wasn't a trade or even a signing. It was a release.

Three weeks from the start of the regular season, Baltimore abruptly cut Earl Thomas, a potential Hall of Fame safety who made the Pro Bowl last season. The Ravens parted ways with Thomas two days after he allegedly punched teammate Chuck Clark and they gave the starting job to DeShon Elliott, a 2018 sixth-round pick who played in six games (no starts) in two injury-filled seasons.

Elliott has become a physical enforcer in the secondary, and the Ravens' defense is better because it's more cohesive.

"I believe that the Ravens organization stands by certain principles," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "It's a certain type of culture here. No matter who you are, you've got to be part of us. If you're not part of us, we don't really need you. Because chemistry is everything -- chemistry in your room, chemistry on the team -- that means a lot."

Baltimore has also benefited by luck, as well.

The biggest hole on defense entering this year's draft was at middle linebacker, and Queen fell to the Ravens at the No. 28 overall pick. Queen currently ranks in the top two among rookies in tackles (44), sacks (two) and forced fumbles (two).

In the 2017 draft, Baltimore selected cornerback Humphrey at No. 16 after being unable to trade up for Marshon Lattimore, their highest-rated cornerback on the board. Humphrey is now a NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate after forcing a fumble or making an interception in all five of the Ravens' wins this season.

"Each game, he does something that makes you say, 'Wow,'" Martindale said. "In his own way, he's a once-in-a-lifetime player who can play in any era."

Who's the best?

Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who has played for the Ravens and the Chicago Bears, was asked which rivalry is the greatest one in the NFL.

McPhee said Ravens-Steelers trumps Bears-Packers for one simple reason.

"I think what makes it better than the Bears and Green Bay is that they're not physical; that division isn't physical like the AFC North," McPhee said. "They haven't had the history with defensive players like the AFC North."

The Steelers have recorded a sack in 63 straight games. It's six off the NFL record, which was set by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1999 to 2003.

The Ravens have forced a turnover in 19 straight games, which is the longest active streak in the league. During this span, Baltimore has scored an NFL-best eight defensive touchdowns.

So, which defense is the best?

"It's close. It's real close," Bowen said. "I would give the edge to Pittsburgh right now. But let's see what this defense looks like with Ngakoue. That could be an added piece that pushes them over the top."

The Ravens believe the debate over the best defense will be settled Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

"They are the No. 1 defense and that's where we want to be," McPhee said. "They're coming in our hometown and they're the No. 1 defense -- why not outplay them and try to move towards our goals of being the No. 1 defense?"