Fitzgerald a challenge for top-ranked defense

Having the number one defense in the NFL definitely comes with bragging rights, but don't expect to hear the Steelers tooting their own horn any time soon.

After just six games the opinion is it's way too early for the number one ranking to matter.   

"You want to be playing good ball right now and we are starting to," said cornerback Ike Taylor. "You want to play your best ball at the end of December leading into January. We have a ways to go. We aren't close to being where we need to be."The defense was ranked 21st overall after an opening day loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But they made a quick jump to the number two ranked defense over the next four weeks, before moving into first following the win over Jacksonville when they held the Jaguars to just 209 total yards.

"It's too early," said safety Ryan Clark. "There is still a lot we have to do. I think these three weeks will show a lot with having Arizona, a very good offensive team, and then New England and Baltimore. I think after that we will know a lot more about ourselves.

"I don't think we have won any games that we weren't supposed to. I think we have held pat and won the games people figured we would win and on paper we felt we should win.  We still have things to prove to ourselves and we are excited about that. That's why you play this game, to play against the best and beat the best. We are waiting for Coach (Mike) Tomlin to get to the point where it's a five-star matchup because we are in it. Right now we are just the other team playing."

This week the defense will be faced with the challenge of stopping Arizona's explosive receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has had success against the Steelers in the past. Fitzgerald had seven receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a when the Steelers defeated them 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII, including a 64-yard catch that put the Cardinals ahead 23-20 with 2:37 left in the game, before Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes for the game-winning touchdown. Fitzgerald also had 10 receptions for 120 yards in a 21-14 Cardinals win in 2007 in Arizona.

"He is an elite receiver," said Clark. "He is a big, fast, physical guy. You can't muscle him because he is a big guy. He is quick enough to get in and out of routes. He has an elite pair of hands. If you watch his game, when has he gotten caught from behind?

"I don't think there is any point of weakness that you can attack him on. The thing he is best at is even when you cover him, whether you are doubled on him or if you are in single coverage he goes up and gets the ball in traffic. So for us it's all kind of difficulties in covering him. You just have to go out and play. You have to be physical with him. We think we have one of the best corners in the league in Ike and we are going to put him on him and sometimes they are going to be matched up and the best guy wins."

Taylor is looking forward to the challenge, knowing he won't back down from any competition.

"He has great body control, ball skills," said Taylor. "Probably the best ball skills guy I have seen. Body control for his size is unbelievable. I don't know why they talk about his 40 time and say he is slow. There have been a lot of times he ran past people and caught the ball and people can't catch up with him."


Second-year nose tackle Steve McLendon saw the most extensive playing time of his career against the Jaguars last week, serving as a back-up to Chris Hoke with Casey Hampton out with a shoulder injury. Now with Hoke battling a neck injury, McLendon's role could increase even more.

"I feel prepared," said McLendon. "I have to go out this week and play technique and listen to my coaches and get better and wait for Sunday to come and go out there and execute the game plan.

"Game experience helps. I got a lot last week and it will help if I need to play. When you get more snaps and know you are going in, you prepare better and play faster. You won't be so tight on the sideline. You know you have to stay loose because you are going to have to go in. It worked out well for me but I have to have a better game this week."

Hoke missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday, giving McLendon more repetitions, something that can only help him.

"Extra work always helps," said McLendon. "You can't get too much work for a game, especially for a game like this. This is a good team we are going against. Their record just doesn't show it."

McLendon has relied on Hampton, Hoke and the rest of the veterans on the defensive line for advice, support and just helping him improve his game.

"Those guys have been great," he said. "They are on my side. They have everything in my best interest. Whatever I need, they are there. They see a young man come up and they let me follow them and I am. I don't want there to be any fall off. They have played a long time and they have been doing a great job. I just want to follow their footsteps."


Injury Update: Five players didn't practice on Thursday, including NT Casey Hampton (shoulder), LB James Harrison (eye), NT Chris Hoke (neck), G Doug Legursky (toe), and DE Aaron Smith (foot). Four others were limited in their work, RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee), C Maurkice Pouncey (elbow), WR Mike Wallace (hamstring), and LB Jason Worilds (quadriceps).

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