Circling the wagons

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By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com

Ravens week is not for the faint of heart. And based on how that team is playing so far in 2008, it also doesn't seem to be a good week to be down a couple of defensive linemen.

The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl in 2000 with a fierce defense and an offense built around the running game, and so it should surprise no one that the Ravens of 2008 are 2-0 with a fierce defense and an offense built around the running game.

The Steelers will have to deal with that without two of their three starting defensive linemen. Brett Keisel (calf) will miss his second game, and he will be joined on the sideline by Casey Hampton (groin). The Steelers believe they have capable replacements in Travis Kirschke, who will make his second start of this season in place of Keisel, and Chris Hoke, but the overall numbers on the defensive line are thinning rapidly.

A team that planned to rotate six defensive linemen in every game now is down to five healthy ones on the roster, and Coach Mike Tomlin listed his starting defensive end (Kirschke) as the backup nose tackle.

"At this point (we have no plans to sign anybody)," said Tomlin, "but of course those things are a possibility as we proceed through the week."

As the Steelers proceed through their week of preparation for the Ravens, they will find a team using its running game to protect rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who opened the season as the starter because of a preseason injury to Troy Smith. In their two wins this season – against Cincinnati and Cleveland – the Ravens have run the ball 90 times and attempted only 48 passes.

"They hand the ball off to whoever is back there -- Le'Ron McLain, Willis McGahee is back (from injury)," said Tomlin. "We all know what Willis McGahee is capable of. Then they have a rookie, Ray Rice, who is doing a very nice job of running the football for them. Flacco is managing the game; he is doing what they are asking him to do."

The Steelers will ask their defensive linemen to pick up any slack created by the absence of their injured teammates, and they will have to do it with five bodies instead of six.

"For us, we acknowledge that injuries are a part of the game," said Tomlin. "The standard of expectation will not change for us. It is an opportunity for some people to step up. Brett Keisel got hurt and did not play last week, so Orpheus Roye stepped up and did a very good job. As a matter of fact, his hustling caused the first turnover of the game. That is where we are in regards to that. I think that anything else is not good for winning football. We expect those guys to step up and deliver for us, and we know that they will."

Hoke and Kirschke are the most experienced when it comes to delivering for the Steelers. Hoke started 10 games for the team in 2004 when Hampton injured his knee, and that Steelers defense finished No. 1 in the NFL against the run. Kirschke came to the Steelers in 2004 as an unrestricted free agent, and even though he has started only six games in four-plus seasons, the coaches consider him a valuable component of the roster.

"In the past he has proven himself," said Tomlin. "He has position flexibility, and I mentioned Bryant McFadden earlier with how he has performed (with Deshea Townsend injured), and I thought that Travis Kirschke really came in and did a nice job playing in place of Brett Keisel. He will potentially get some nose work again this week. So we will see how that goes."

The way it has been going since 2004 is that whenever Hampton is not on the field as the nose tackle, Hoke is doing a nice job in his place. Not bad for a guy who came to the team as an undrafted rookie and needed three years to get himself on the field for a regular season game.

"Chris Hoke is not Casey, but again, we don't anticipate a drop-off of production," said Tomlin. "We expect him to go in and perform at a winning level, and we know that he will."

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