By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host division rival Baltimore at 8:30 p.m. on Monday night at Heinz Field:
STEELERS RB RASHARD MENDENHALL VS. RAVENS LILB RAY LEWIS: As Coach Mike Tomlin said, "Ready or not." Mendenhall will make his first NFL start because Willie Parker is sidelined with a sprained left knee. "I haven't seen that much of (Rashard) Mendenhall, but I just think that Willie is one of those warriors who is going to come and play the game right," said Lewis. "When you lose a guy like that I don't think that you try to replace him. I think that they did a great job drafting Mendenhall. At the same time, I don't know the difference between him and Parker just yet. I think that losing what you lose with Willie is a lot of speed from the running back position." What Mendenhall will learn is that when the Ravens are playing well and winning, their defense is an attacking, physical unit that's always hunting for turnovers. Since realignment in 2002, the Ravens have won two AFC North titles, and in those years they combined for 81 takeaways, 107 sacks and 12 defensive touchdowns. Protecting the ball will be as important as gaining yards. "He has fumbled the ball a couple of times," said Lewis, "so I think that we would be approaching the game wrong if that was not our focus."
STEELERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR DICK LeBEAU VS. RAVENS QB JOE FLACCO: Mendenhall might be in for the biggest shock of his football life, because the Ravens defense is faster, more aggressive, and more opportunistic than any he's ever seen in a game. But Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is in for a bigger shock, because what Dick LeBeau will unleash on him this Monday night will not only be a physical test, but a mental and psychological one as well. Flacco can be expected to have the ball in his hands a lot on Monday night, because the Ravens should not be able to line up and run the ball and control the clock for 37 minutes like they did against the Bengals and Browns. And when Flacco has the ball in his hands he's going to have to make decisions about where to go with it. The Steelers defense is on pace for 32 interceptions and 53 sacks, and LeBeau has a lot of players he can use either in coverage or to rush the quarterback. Those options, plus the noise at Heinz Field, could combine to make Monday night very difficult for a rookie quarterback.
STEELERS SPECIAL TEAMS VS. RAVENS KR YAMON FIGURS: A hamstring injury sidelined Figurs last week, but he has returned to practice and should be able to play Monday night against the Steelers. When healthy, the Ravens use Figurs as their primary kick returner, and the guy who was their No. 3 draft pick in 2007 is good at it. As a rookie, Figurs returned one punt and one kickoff for touchdowns to become the first Ravens player to pull off the feat in the same season. The Steelers have been doing a solid job covering kicks this season, and the way the team dealt with the hamstring injury to Donovan Woods proved it is serious about it. Woods had two special teams tackles in the first two games, and when he was injured the Steelers made a roster move to replace him in coverage. Patrick Bailey was moved up from the practice squad and had a special teams tackle in Philadelphia. In games that turn out to be defensive battles of field position, which this one very well could be, a special teams touchdown would represent a huge swing.
STEELERS DE AARON SMITH VS. RAVENS OL MARSHAL YANDA AND ADAM TERRY:Yanda and Terry make up the right side of the Ravens offensive line, which means they have the unenviable task of dealing with Smith, who is having one of his best seasons so far. Against the Browns, Smith was at his defensive line position for 57 plays, and he had four solo tackles, both of the Steelers' sacks, and his four pressures of quarterback Derek Anderson also led the team, one more than James Harrison. Against the Eagles, Smith played 54 of the 66 plays and he had two tackles, plus one pressure and one hurry. The Ravens are averaging 45 running plays a game, and their 380 yards rushing in two games is more than 21 NFL teams have in three games. Just as the Steelers defense is going to have to deal with the Ravens' running game, the Ravens are going to have to deal with Smith if they expect to be able to run the football.