By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — It’s been called the nastiest rivalry in the NFL by the players who compete in it, but it’s also one where the teams are evenly matched.
Here are the most interesting and crucial match-ups for both clubs when the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) play host to the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) in a key AFC North Division contest Sunday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall going against Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis could be the most important matchup for either team.
Buoyed by several long runs, including a 50-yard touchdown burst to win the Steelers’ opener in overtime, Mendenhall is fourth in the NFL with 332 rushing yards through three games.
And the third-year pro appears to be hitting his stride early this season after a 143-yard performance last week in Tampa that included a powerful scoring run from the 3, as well as two long runs.
Lewis is the fiery, venerable defensive leader for the Ravens in his 15th NFL season. He still appears to be playing at a high level and is all too familiar to the Steelers and Mendenhall, despite the latter’s limited experience. On Sept. 29, 2008, Lewis drilled Mendenhall and split his shoulder blade to end the rookie’s season before just as it was getting started.
Mendenhall said he never relives that moment, and added that it will play no role when the two clash again this week.
“I don’t really think about stuff like that,” Mendenhall said. “That was two years ago, and right now I’m showing up to play. It’s always a tough game and a tough rivalry versus Baltimore, and we’re just getting prepared.”
If Mendenhall can get past Lewis and the Ravens linebackers, the Steelers should have a successful offensive day.
Another critical matchup for the Steelers offense is rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, with just three NFL starts under his belt, against Baltimore nose tackle Kelly Gregg.
Pouncey is the Steelers most athletic center since Dermontti Dawson, and by the time his career ends he could be mentioned among the club’s best along with Dawson, Mike Webster, Ray Mansfield and Jeff Hartings. Pouncey also is powerful, and he’ll need to be to handle the 6-foot, 320-pound Gregg.
Like the Steelers Casey Hampton, Gregg is the lynchpin to the Ravens’ defensive line from the middle. Since 2002, Gregg has far and away been the leading tackler among NFL nose tackles with 661 stops. That’s more than 80 per season and second among all Baltimore defenders to Lewis.
“He’s a horse,” Pouncey said. “I’m sure I’ll get some help from our guards, but for the most part it will be me against him, one on one. He’ll be about the best that I’ll face this season, and I look forward to that challenge.”
The Steelers’ entire offensive line likely will have to deal with roving pass-rusher Terrell Suggs, but the Ravens’ future sack leader probably will be matched against veteran right tackle Flozell Adams more often than not.
Adams play has sparkled this season, but the vicious blocker could take a few liberties this week after a relatively mild (for him) start to the season with just a couple penalties.
Suggs has 59 quarterback sacks since 2003, and two years ago he talked about the Ravens putting a “bounty” on Steelers wideout Hines Ward. If Suggs is allowed to roam around from side to side and occasionally gets into the backfield, the Steelers could be in for a long afternoon. Adams needs to at least get a stalemate and even win a few battles against Suggs.
While Ward has had his share of big games against the Ravens, including two spectacular hits Nov. 5, 2007, when he laid the wood to Ed Reed and Bart Scott with bone-rattling blocks. The Ravens always zero in on Ward, so second-year pro Mike Wallace needs another big game.
Wallace burned the Buccaneers for two long touchdowns and leads the NFL with an eye-popping 26.7 yards per catch. Baltimore free safety Tom Zbikowski will be responsible for keeping Wallace out of the end zone. He’s no Ed Reed, on injured reserve after hip surgery, and that should give Wallace the edge.
“They have a good secondary, but they’re not unbeatable,” Wallace said. “And if we can run the ball on them like Cleveland did last week, that would open up quite a bit for our receivers and the passing game.”
Baltimore has its own home-run threat in Anquan Boldin, a new addition this season, and he has made an immediate impact with five catches for more than 30 yards, three touchdowns and 15 of his 20 receptions moving the sticks. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor likely will get the matchup with Boldin.
“They have a lot of good receivers like Boldin, T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) and Derrick Mason, he always has been tough on us,” Taylor said. “But look forward to game’s like this. Every week it’s a challenge, and this is a big one. But I’m more than sure that we’ll be ready for it.”
Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, second in the NFL with 33 tackles, finally has become a force in his fourth season. And he’ll need to be on top of his game against the Ravens with bruising fullback Le’Ron McClain leading the way for Willis McGahee and fireplug Ray Rice, who said he’s healthy enough to play despite getting injured last week.
“We expect Rice to play, and we know that he’s tough to bring down,” Timmons said. “But we don’t let runners get 100 yards on us, and we don’t expect to let that happen this week, either.”
Rice is the only NFL running back to surpass the 100-yard plateau against the Steelers in the past 35 regular-season games.
Another key player in this brutal rivalry is Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, a Ravens’ castoff early in his career. The date was Nov. 5, 2007, and Harrison filled a highlight tape with big plays against Baltimore. Harrison hammered Reed to the ground while covering the latter’s punt return, and he tallied nine tackles, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovered.
It was a monster night on a national stage for Harrison, and he could have another one if he can get beat 6-foot-4, 313-pound Baltimore left tackle Michael Oher. Harrison is listed at 6-foot, 242 pounds, and while he likely is shorter than that he certainly is tough enough and quick enough to beat Oher.
“They usually have a tough time stopping Silver Back (Harrison), unless they hold him,” Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said. “He really gets fired up for the Ravens, and so do the rest of us. So, we’re looking forward to another great game in this rivalry.”
And it could be another successful one if the Steelers can get the upper hand in most of the aforementioned match-ups.
Notes: RG Trai Essex and Chris Hoke have been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Ravens running back Ray Rice (knee) is expected to play