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Ravens, Steelers brace for key defensive battle

THE Pittsburgh Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship tomorrow in a contest where the players, coaches and fans know nothing will be given away easily.

During the regular season, the Steelers and the Ravens had the top two defenses in the league overall, were the top two against passing and ranked second and third against the rush. Bearing those statistics in mind, Ravens defensive co-ordinator Rex Ryan raised few eyebrows when he admitted that the battle for a Super Bowl berth would be a defensive encounter.

"I think it will be. When you look at it, they've got the number one-rated defense and we are pretty close to them," Ryan told reporters. "So, we're expecting to hold up our end, and whatever that takes, that's what we are going to give up -- one point less than we get. That's what our mission is this week."

Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis leads the defense with his bone-crunching tackles and while he has the ability to make even his own fans shudder at his raw aggression, Ryan says there was more to his play than just physical power.

"He's such a student of the game. The practices, the meeting times that we have, that's only part of it. If you really want to be great, you'll study the tapes and all that yourself. Ray probably puts in as many hours as most coaches do," he said.

The teams have met twice already this season in the AFC North with the Steelers winning 13-9 in Baltimore and 23-20 at home.

Both games were gruelling encounters with no shortage of controversy and the fear of some is that the familiarity between the players has bred real contempt.

Safety Ed Reed, who led the league in interceptions with nine during the regular season, played down the rivalry between the teams.

"Hate is a strong word. I think it is more a respect thing. They know we play hard, and we know they play hard. It would be something if one of those guys or one of us said we didn't respect them, because it would be a lie," he said.

"At the end of the day, I believe that both teams are true fans of football and know that in our conference, though, we're going to play football regardless of anything."

The Ravens do have some defensive worries though -- linebacker Terrell Suggs has a shoulder problem and cornerback Samari Rolle is a doubt with a groin injury.

Reed though believes it would have to be a very serious injury to keep his teammate out of action. "You'd have to strap him down. I know the competitor he has in him, and you're going to have to strap those guys down for them not to play in this game some type of way," he said.


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