For only the second time since 1999, both the Ravens and Steelers could end the season not ranked in the top-10 defensively.
That adds an unusual subplot to Sunday's matchup at Heinz Field between rivals that historically pride themselves on playing great defense. The Ravens have picked it up recently, but their defense is still ranked 19th overall, and has given up big plays at key moments at an unusual rate this season.
After tackling well, eliminating big plays and pressuring Baker Mayfield effectively during Sunday's 16-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns, Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale believes his unit is finally building momentum for a strong finish.
"I think that we just keep playing the way we're playing right now, and that's just good, solid, fundamental football," Martindale said. "Communication is something that's big time. The Cleveland game, for us to communicate the way we did, at home, with as loud as our stadium is, I thought that was one of the most pleasing things that we did on Sunday night."
The Steelers' defense is in a much more dire situation after being embarrassed 41-10 by the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend. They are currently ranked 25th in the league, and if the season ended today, it would be their second-lowest defensive ranking in franchise history (28th in 1988).
Instead of running with the NFL's big dogs defensively, Pittsburgh's defense is being dogged by former Steelers like ESPN's Ryan Clark, who unloaded after Sunday's game.
"They're not my beloved Steelers anymore," Clark said on the air Sunday. "Nobody's scared to play this team. There's absolutely no physicality. There's no energy defensively. There's no tone-setters. You have one of the best playmaking free safeties in Minkah Fitzpatrick, and you know what he is? He's a fifth linebacker, because you won't tackle anybody in the run.
"You don't scare nobody. It ain't about putting your face mask on somebody's else's face mask. It's not upholding what Joe Greene did, what (Jack) Lambert did. It's not about doing what James Harrison did, Casey Hampton, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu. Those days are gone."
The Steelers hope their last performance was rock bottom for their defense, but some of the numbers are staggering:
- Pittsburgh has allowed 82 points in its last two games. Over the last six quarters, the defense has allowed 750 yards.
- The Steelers have given up 1,464 yards rushing through 11 games, the most they've allowed through 11 games since 1989.
- The Steelers are allowing 4.8 yards per carry, which is the highest since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
At 5-5-1 and in last place in the AFC North, the Steelers are in a desperate situation, which makes them dangerous. But do they have the time and the talent to fix their weaknesses?
The Ravens, who rank second in the NFL in rushing averaging (150.7 yards per game), will be another test for the Steelers' run defense Sunday. Pittsburgh is missing two injured stalwarts on the defensive line – Stephon Tuitt, who hasn't played all season, and Tyson Aluala, who last played since in Week 2.
Star pass rusher T.J. Watt, who has the second-most sacks in the league and is their biggest defensive game-changer, has been in COVID-19 protocol all week and his status for Sunday is uncertain.
A nose tackle who was signed to Pittsburgh's practice squad last week, Montravius Adams, could be pressed into heavy duty against the Ravens. But no matter who plays, the Steelers' defensive game plan will center around trying to contain Jackson as both a runner and a passer.
"We're playing a really good offense, a really good rushing offense, an MVP candidate in Lamar Jackson," defensive tackle Cam Heyward said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "If we don't lock in on this guy, he's going to have a field day. That's just being honest."
The Ravens' defense also has reason for concern. Three of their top cornerbacks didn't practice Friday – Marlon Humphrey (illness), Tavon Young (illness) and Jimmy Smith. The other starter, Anthony Averett, is dealing with shoulder/ankle injuries.
If Baltimore isn't at full strength in the secondary against Pittsburgh, it will be more difficult to keep Pittsburgh receivers Dionte Johnson (68 catches, 809 yards ) and Chase Claypool (37 catches, 608 yards) in check.
Putting heat on Roethlisberger will be a top priority for Baltimore, and outside linebackers Tyus Bowser, Odafe Oweh and Justin Houston all had excellent games against Cleveland. The Ravens had five quarterback hits and three sacks against Mayfield, and they want to pressure Roethlisberger even when they can't get to him. Roethisberger is getting rid of the ball faster than any quarterback in the league.
"What I want to see is how we're affecting the quarterback, and right now … I like seeing them get up off the ground – whether it's a hit, whether it's a sack, whatever it is," Martindale said. "Just as long as an official is not pulling up a flag off the ground, too, when we're picking him up off the ground."
The Ravens believe their defense has found its footing, but things can change quickly in the NFL and the Steelers need a win. Both teams hope their defense can rise to the occasion, and while Martindale isn't worried about Pittsburgh's problems, he believes his unit is ready.
"We know how big this game is and the rivalry," Martindale said. "It re-energizes you – it does as a coach – and the players see it, too, and the young ones will find out about it. I told them that, 'If you want to be known in this city, play well against Pittsburgh.' So, it's going to be a fun game."