- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

OWINGS MILLS, Md. | Their secondaries have featured light-fingered thieves Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. They’ve had space-eaters Casey Hampton and Haloti Ngata up front. But their linebackers ultimately have made the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens the dominant defenses of the decade and have them set for a third showdown this season in Sunday’s AFC championship game at Heinz Field.

The Steelers’ defense allowed the fewest points and yards this year. The Ravens’ defense ranked third in points and second in yards. Baltimore’s fiery captain Ray Lewis and ace pass-rusher Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh’s top tackler James Farrior and sack artist James Harrison were all chosen for the Pro Bowl. Lewis (2000, 2003) and Harrison (2008) have been named the league’s top defensive player.

“If you watch [the Ravens] play defense and you watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play defense, that’s how teams across the league should play defense,” Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “Both teams are pretty much built around their linebackers. The linebackers are the ones that are going to make all the plays. While the defensive linemen do all the dirty work, the inside linebackers and outside linebackers will come in on the blitzes.”

Woodley sacked San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers twice in Pittsburgh’s 35-24 divisional round victory last Sunday while Suggs - whose status for this game remains in doubt because of a shoulder injury suffered against Tennessee - had the game’s only sack in Baltimore’s 13-10 triumph over the top-seeded Titans.

“These two teams, maybe they do have the two best [linebackers],” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They’re both very effective, both very physical and they play for the two best defenses in the NFL. [They’re] the backbone of any defense. What else can you say?”

When the Steelers lost three-time Pro Bowl outside backer Joey Porter to free agency in March 2007, they plugged in one-time rookie free agent Harrison and kept on humming. They did the same this past offseason with Woodley replacing the departed Clark Haggans. And when Pro Bowl outside linebacker Adalius Thomas left the Ravens after the 2006 season, they promoted Jarret Johnson and barely missed a beat.

But that’s how it works with these franchises that between them have sent at least one linebacker to the Pro Bowl every year since 1968.

“You hear different guys around the locker room talking about the linebackers, you hear the coaches talk about the linebackers,” Woodley said. “You see fans in the street and they tell you about the tradition of the linebackers. If you’re here playing on this team, you know one thing: You would like to be mentioned as one of those top linebackers like they’re still remembered.”

Harrison, Farrior, Woodley and Larry Foote are tattooed into the memories of members of Baltimore’s offense. The Ravens mustered 445 yards and 29 points in two games against Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense this season.

“They’re pretty dang good,” Ravens tight end Todd Heap said. “Harrison’s one of the toughest guys to go against as a linebacker/defensive end. He’s making plays all over the field. You’ve got the two inside guys, Foote and Farrior, that also make a lot of plays. And Woodley, for a young guy, he’s a handful. We’ll have our hands full this week.”

So will Pittsburgh’s offense, which scored a combined 29 points in two games against Baltimore this season. That Bart Scott issued a death threat to Steelers receiver Hines Ward last year for what the Ravens linebacker considered a cheap-shot block defines the intensity of the rivalry.

Lewis, who starred between Boulware and Jamie Sharper on a 4-3 defense that led the Ravens to a win in Super Bowl XXXV, said the 2008 quartet could be just as good.

“This group is one of the special ones,” Lewis said. “You don’t have too many times you can have that many linebackers being able to do so many interchangeable things that we do. I don’t know where you rate [the Steelers’ linebackers]. I don’t know where we rate ourselves right now, but we’re OK. We’re pretty good.”


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