Defensive Party

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For the first seven weeks of the season, the Ravens boasted the NFL's top-ranked defense.

But from then on, the Pittsburgh Steelers assumed that mantle.

While Baltimore is not dwelling on such rankings or statistics, the fact that their typical spot at the top of the charts isn't colored purple and black is enough to cause proud defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to do a double-take.

"I really just look forward to getting an opportunity to play for what we think will be a division championship, so that's the thing we're really looking forward to regardless of who we're playing," Ryan said Thursday. "It does come to my attention that they are No. 1 in the league in total defense, so we'll see.

"Hopefully we can catch them."

The slight smile crossing Ryan's face as he spoke was perhaps due to the fact that the Ravens will have a chance to do just that this weekend, as Pittsburgh heads to M&T Bank Stadium for a clash of AFC North rivals.

And the margin is not that wide.

The Ravens allow only 253.4 yards per game, while the Steelers give up a mere 241.9 net yards. Baltimore's pass defense surrenders 176.4 yards each week, compared to the Steelers' 168.9. On the ground, the Ravens average 77.0 yards allowed, which is only 4 more that Pittsburgh's average.

Where the statistics really matter, however, is in points allowed.

It may seem that the Ravens are behind Pittsburgh by giving up 15.3 points per game to the Steelers' 14.1. But Baltimore has also given up five returns for scores, which account for 35 extra points that count against the defense's tally.

By recalculating both teams' averages, the Ravens' "D" only yields 12.6 points per game, topping the adjusted 13.5 for the Steelers, noting the single return scored against them.

Ryan believes his charges are playing to the standard set two years ago, when the Ravens were first in nearly every defensive category.

Such success has been typical in Baltimore, and it is especially evident at home.

Since 2003, the Ravens are the NFL's best in yards permitted per game (270.5) and fewest total touchdowns (69) allowed in their own backyard.

"[The standard for Baltimore's defense is] easy: Play for the man beside you, bottom line," said linebacker Ray Lewis. "When the ball is snapped, find it. Don't ever get caught loafing. Don't get caught in any of that, because you won't have to answer to the coaches, you've got to answer to us, because it's personal anytime you step on that field."

There are similar signs of success in the Pittsburgh locker room.

In fact, dating to the 2000 campaign, when Baltimore took home the Super Bowl XXXV trophy, the Steelers and Ravens are Nos. 1 and 2 in yards allowed over 141 games.

How have two opponents in the same division been so strong on one side of the ball for so long?

"I think they're doing a great job with saying that if there's one thing we're going to have, that's a good defense," Lewis offered. "These are two franchises that invested in those sides of the ball. And if you really look at it over the years, it keeps revolving and guys come in, guys come in, and it keeps changing hands."

But in the end, the numbers, the past and the rankings don't matter nearly as much to the Ravens' defense, especially when a share of the AFC North lead is on the line and Sunday's game has strong playoff implications.

"It means nothing at the end of the day," said Lewis, the backbone of this unit since he was drafted back in 1996. "The bottom line is you've got two good defenses coming in, and the game is going to be played and one side is going to win, one side is going to lose. If you get caught up in all those numbers, it's going to sooner or later get you in trouble."

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