By Christina Rivers
With a week of practice, the Pittsburgh Steelers feel they have the right personnel in place to battle their AFC North Division rivals; the Baltimore Ravens. Quarterback Byron Leftwich had three good days of practice with the first team and is ready to go. News that running back Rashard Mendenhall is ready has lifted a lot of pressure off of the other Steelers rushers, but the team expects to run by committee against the Ravens if they need to shake things up a bit. With the injury report comes the expectation that the locker room mantra of ‘next man up’ holds true and that every player is fully ready to be responsible for their position come Sunday.
Leftwich who is getting his first 2012 NFL start said, “I feel good. I feel like I got more reps with the guys. I feel as though I am ready to roll. [Friday] is our last big day (of practice) and now it’s time to do what you have to do and get ready to roll Sunday night.” Leftwich admitted that he may feel some butterflies. “We all understand the importance of this football game,” Leftwich added. “We are going to do what we have to do and try to get one more point than [the Ravens].”
Although listed as ‘probable’, Rashard Mendenhall expects to play. When asked about his Achilles, Mendenhall said, “It’s been feeling good. I will just continue to grow off of that.” He doesn’t feel any limitations. “I wouldn’t step out there if that was the case,” he said.
For one of the most heated rivalries in the NFL, it favors the Steelers to have healthy running backs. The Ravens are not highly ranked in their run defense this year, so Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Mendenhall will most likely get a share of the carries. For fantasy owners, this could limit the productivity of your fantasy team, but it will be a boon for the Steelers. “I think all three of us are going to play and keep it rolling,” said Redman. “We are going to try to pound them and keep a fresh running back out there.”
Linebacker Marshall McFadden wasn’t playing in the NFL in 2011. With the Steelers placing linebacker Chris Carter on the injured reserve list due to an abdominal injury, McFadden was activated from the practice squad (signed in January 2012, released and then re-signed). McFadden is expected to play mainly on special teams. “That’s one of the reasons they are bringing me up,” he said. “If I can help by going out here and being a ‘special teams’ player that is what I will do, put my hand in the pile.”
Receiver Antonio Brown is out for the game due to an ankle injury, which makes Leftwich’s main aerial targets Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Heath Miller. Miller has been having a great year and the Todd Haley offensive scheme opens up a lot of options for the Steelers’ tight ends. While Wallace and Sanders may not get many long receptions, Leftwich will be looking for them on the field. Of concern is the dropped passes Wallace has had in the past two weeks. He’ll need to not only get open but focus on making the catch before he turns on the afterburners. Jerricho Cotchery has seen some slip through his hands as well, but it still considered the third receiver. David Gilreath will be a backup. Leonard Pope and David Paulson will most likely split time at tight end as needed.
While the Steelers’ offensive line may get tackle Max Starks back from an ankle injury, they are fired up for the game. Calling the game an “old-fashioned backyard brawl”, guard Willie Colon said, “We are both fighting for the big picture.” He said that the two teams are nearly neighbors and that each side knows what’s happening in each others’ house. “It’s one of those things where we have to flat out play…It’s just going to be roll out the ball and be ready to go.” The Ravens will be trying to stuff the line to prevent the run and get to Leftwich, so offensive line play is huge this week. “It’s going to be a hard-hitting, physical game,” guard Ramon Foster said. “You don’t want to lose that battle between the offensive and defensive line…You have to be prepared to deliver the shot to them.”
Defensive end Brett Keisel had a shoulder injury and is listed as probable (but fully expected to be on the field). He had his own words for Steelers fans. “We expect our crowd to be a big factor in this game, give us some noise out there.” When asked about what is at stake in the rivalry game, Keisel said, “It’s one of those games each team understands they need to have in order to win the division, in order to get where they want to get. You have to win these types of games. We are ready to lay it all out on the line to get a win.”
On defense, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (hamstring) is questionable. Cornerback Curtis Brown (quadriceps), safety Ryan Clark (concussion) and cornerback Ike Taylor (illness) are listed as probable. Clark and Taylor are both expected to start Sunday. “They don’t like us, we don’t like them,” Taylor said. “You are talking about two successful defenses year in and year out. You are talking about Pittsburgh, you are talking about Baltimore. It’s a clear understanding of the dislike between both teams.”
The Steelers are 4-0 at Heinz Field this season and the Ravens have struggled on road games. Pittsburgh would like to keep that streak alive. As for it being a grudge match, the referees may be hearing a lot of chatter from both teams’ players, as things usually get verbal as well as physical.
“We hate them. That’s pretty much it,” said Redman. “There is no love loss. We don’t like them at all and when the game comes you can tell by the play, the emotions on the field. There is going to be a lot of hitting, a lot of trash talking. It’s Steelers vs. Ravens.”
Injury recap (Wed., Thurs., Fri. – Practice and Game Status)
DB Curtis Brown (quadriceps) – LP, FP, FP – probable
WR Antonio Brown (ankle) – DNP, DNP, DNP – out
FS Ryan Clark (concussion) – LP, FP, FP – probable
T Marcus Gilbert (ankle) – DNP, DNP, DNP – out
DE Brett Keisel (shoulder) – DNP, FP, FP – probable
RB Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) – FP, FP, FP – probable
SS Troy Polamalu (calf) – DNP, DNP, DNP – out
T Max Starks (ankle) – DNP, FP, FP – probable
ILB Stevenson Sylvester (hamstring) – FP, FP, LP – probable
CB Ike Taylor (illness) – LP, FP, FP – probable
DNP = Did not participate in practice
LP = Limited Participation in Practice – Less than 100% of a player’s normal repetitions
FP = Full Participation – 100% of a player’s normal repetitions
Out = Player will not play
Out = Player will not play
Doubtful = 25% chance a player will play
Questionable = 50% chance a player will play
Probable = 75% chance a player will play
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.