This impending AFC title game Sunday at Heinz Field between Baltimore (13-5) and Pittsburgh (13-4) contains a violent subplot beyond determining which AFC North rival will advance to the Super Bowl.
This game also shapes up as a textbook clinic on how to play linebacker as arguably the top two sets of players at that position in the NFL will be on display and leading the Steelers’ top-ranked defense and the Ravens’ second-ranked defense.
Get ready to watch outstanding speed, helmet-rattling tackles, crafty blitzes and adept pass coverage no matter who’s executing complex variations of the 3-4 defensive alignment at the time.
Are these the best linebackers in the NFL?
"It’s tough for me to say, but we have tremendous respect for those linebackers," Ravens inside linebacker Bart Scott said. "We think pretty highly of ourselves, so I would have to say so. Little bit different styles.
"I think they are more of a traditional one with both guys rushing off the edge, and we do a little bit more creative things. I wouldn’t say one style is better than the other. They have great playmakers on that side of the ball, and we do as well."
The Ravens are headlined by intimidating two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year middle linebacker Ray Lewis, one of the fiercest, hardest-hitting defensive players in the history of the game.
The All-Pro selection is the gold standard at the position, and hasn’t declined this year at age 33 as he has led the Ravens with 160 tackles to go with 3 1/2 sacks, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumbles.
And there will be plenty of parallels to observe as eight linebackers who excel at stopping the run and rushing the passer ply their trade.
"In terms of their production and the way they play the game, absolutely," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said when asked about the common threads between the teams’ linebackers. "They’re a group that takes a great deal of pride in how they play the game. They play it with great energy, emotion and enthusiasm. I think they’re very similar."
The Steelers feature newly-minted NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, a former Baltimore castoff who finished second in the AFC with 16 sacks while leading the NFL with seven forced fumbles. He has been the scourge of the Ravens for years, constantly harassing quarterbacks as he attacks off the edge.
Combining with LaMarr Woodley as bookend outside linebackers, Harrison and his counterpart combined for 27 1/2 sacks to break the team’s top sack duo record by eclipsing previous marks of 24 held by Joey Porter and Jason Gildon in 2000 and Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene in 1994.
Plus, the Steelers have Pro Bowl middle linebacker James Farrior. He led the team with 146 tackles to go with 3 ½ sacks.
Inside linebacker Larry Foote does a lot of the dirty work inside to allow Farrior to roam freely to the football. He still had 86 tackles.
And Woodley has 11 ½ sacks and four fumble recoveries to go with Lawrence Timmons’ five sacks and an interception.
All of which begs the question: Who’s better than the Ravens and Steelers’ linebackers?
"I guess you can make that argument considering the way these defenses have been playing," Lewis said. "For a good little while, both teams played very, very aggressive defense. They have great linebackers, so I can see people making that argument."
Lewis is more than capably assisted by the Ravens’ other three starting linebackers.
There’s Scott, a former Pro Bowl selection who ranks second with 104 tackles and plays with a trash-talking, hard-hitting zeal.
As Scott noted, he has more pass-coverage responsibilities than the Steele rs’ linebackers.
There’s Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who ranks third on the team with 102 tackles and leads Baltimore with eight sacks.
With 53 career sacks, Suggs ranks second in franchise history behind Peter Boulware and is regarded as one of the top young pass rushers in the NFL. He also has 19 career forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries. However, Suggs is dealing with a painful right shoulder strain and is considered a question mark for Sunday.
The Steelers are relatively healthy at linebacker, not listing any on the injury report.
“There’s a lot of playmakers running around,” Baltimore outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “It’s a very aggressive group of guys for both teams.”
Johnson is a hard-nosed, versatile competitor who has 82 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
On many NFL teams, Johnson would be a household name. In Baltimore, he’s a supporting actor as part of a star-studded cast of linebackers.
"This group is one of the special ones," Lewis said. "I guess that’s why you see the things that are happening with the defense. You don’t have too many times you can have that many linebackers with the type of ability that we have on one side of the ball, being able to do so many interchangeable things that we do.
"I don’t know where you rate them. I don’t know where we rate ourselves right now, but we’re OK. We’re pretty good."
Ravens veteran offensive tackle Willie Anderson owns the wise perspective of having competed against both teams for years in the AFC North after signing with Baltimore this summer after a dozen seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.
While these aren’t mirror images lining up in purple and black and black and gold at linebacker, there are definitely enough common traits to admire.
“They both have leaders all over the field, they both have their stars, they both have their underrated linebackers like Bart Scott and Larry Foote,” Anderson said. “What Bart does for this team doesn’t show on paper a lot, but we appreciate the guy being just a battering ram. We say, ‘How many championships would Michael Jordan have won without Scottie Pippen doing the dirty work?’
“Both teams have sets of pass rushers, the guys you can’t define whether they’re down guys or outside linebackers who are big enough to rush and fast enough to cover. The mentality is somewhat similar, too. Both teams have a lot of pride and a lot of talent.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.