In the midst of an NFL season that is on course to set records for the most points and touchdowns, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are winning on the strength of their defenses.
The Steelers have the top-ranked unit in the league in terms of fewest yards allowed (286.3 per game) and are riding a streak of 63 games in a row with at least one sack.
The Ravens are yielding an NFL-low 17.3 points per game and have forced a turnover in 19 consecutive games.
Which team plays defense better? The answer might become clearer Sunday when the longtime rivals meet in Baltimore with first place in the AFC North on the line.
Winning is the overriding goal for the Ravens (5-1) against the lone remaining unbeaten team in the NFL. But there's more to it than that for the ninth-ranked Baltimore defense.
“Every time we touch the field, we have a standard. When we’re out there playing defense, we want to be the best," defensive tackle Calais Campbell said.
“Honestly, we watch what they do, and we know that they’re great. 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."
Baltimore's Lamar Jackson and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger are two of the better quarterbacks in the league. Yet, it's unlikely that this will develop into a high-scoring affair because these teams have always been built around defense — and this year appears to be no exception.
“Baltimore probably feels the same way: When you have a strong defense, that gives you a chance in any game. That’s just a buy in from year to year," Pittsburgh defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “Different guys come in, but they understand the standard that’s been held up. Both teams come in with strong defenses, and defense is usually going to win this game.”
The Ravens are stingy, but the rankings suggest Pittsburgh's defense is better — at least for now.
“I’m more excited for this game because they’re the No. 1 defense and that’s where we want to be," linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “It definitely is a defensive game for me. They’re coming into our hometown, so why not try to outplay them and move toward our goal of being the No. 1 defense?"
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith has been part of this rivalry since 2011, long enough to know what kind of game to expect Sunday and well aware that he's going to be plenty sore on Monday.
“This game has always come down to defense," Smith said. “They have who they have at quarterback and do what they do on offense. But this is one of those physical, heavyweight fights that usually comes down to the defense that plays better, and they have one of the best ones in the NFL."
The Ravens had an extra week to get ready after having a bye on Sunday. During the break, they worked a trade with Minnesota for sack specialist Yannick Ngakoue, who should make a solid unit even better.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh (6-0) are tied for the league lead with 64 quarterback hits and the Ravens had a total of 13 sacks in their past two games before the bye.
“I think he’s going to really help complete this defense," McPhee said of Ngakoue. “He’s definitely a guy who can win an edge rush 1-on-1, definitely a guy who can cause havoc."
Ngakoue isn't the only newcomer to the Ravens. Three-time Pro Bowl receiver Dez Bryant was added to the practice squad on Tuesday and sometime soon will return to the field for the first time since 2017.
“When and if he’s ready to go, he’ll be out there. It’s that simple," coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday.
For now, however, Harbaugh is focused on trying to solve a Pittsburgh defense that has thus far showed few weaknesses.
“They’re one of the top defenses in the league, statistically, and it shows up on the tape," he said. “Their front is as good as any. Their secondary is playing like they always do, aggressive. So, it’s a Pittsburgh defense. They run the same schemes they’ve been running, and they run it very effectively. We have a lot of respect for them.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed.
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