Ravens' blockers have their hands full

Blocking the Pittsburgh Steelers' cadre of aggressive defenders doesn't necessarily spell doom for the Baltimore Ravens. However, the timing for a battle with swift outside linebacker Joey Porter and Co. isn't ideal for an offensive line aching because of nagging injuries. Yet, today's showdown for supremacy in the AFC North could be decided partly by how effective Baltimore line coach Jim Colletto's blockers are at doing their job:

Creating enough time for quarterback Chris Redman and opening holes for running back Jamal Lewis.

The Ravens' matchup against an active, intense unit carries the promise of little finesse, plenty of gritted teeth and knocking heads.

 "Everybody on their defense is good and they all play their butts off," Ravens offensive guard Casey Rabach said. "Their linebackers are athletic as all hell. Their defensive linemen are big and fast and play from snap to whistle.

"It's going to be a big challenge. I hope we're healthy enough to compete at our best. Obviously, we still have some question marks."

Regardless of the Ravens' shaky health, which includes right tackle Ethan Brooks being listed as probable after missing last week with back spasms and a sore knee, the Steelers are coming to town with mayhem on their mind.

The Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme uses subtlety along with sheer speed and strength to attack the line of scrimmage.

Using nose tackle Casey Hampton to control two gaps, linebackers Kendrell Bell, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year who is on the mend from a sprained ankle, James Farrior, Porter and Jason Gildon are left free to flow to the football.

 Hampton occupies a lot of space at 6-foot-1, 320 pounds.

"He's one of those strong, stocky kind of guys," offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo said.

Ends Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen play with great discipline, are adept at closing run plays down and chase the passer well.

Porter is second in the league with six sacks to go with three interceptions. In a loss to the Oakland Raiders, Porter became the first player in NFL history to have three sacks and two interceptions in the same game.

"It's the craftiness of the scheme," All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "Don't get me wrong, they have good players who play well in the system, but that system is what takes them from being a good defense to being a great defense."

Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis' players did break down noticeably in the opener against the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and aren't as dominant statistically as last year when they led the NFL with 55 sacks.

Still, the Steelers' defense has played a large role in winning three of four games, allowing 17 points over the last two weeks. The Steelers (3-3) rank seventh in the AFC in total defense, third in rushing yards allowed.

Because the Ravens practice against their own variety of the 3-4 alignment, that helps matters, but it doesn't completely eliminate the problem the Steelers pose.

"Schematically, it's what we've practiced against all summer, so that helps to a degree, but, physically, this is as good a front seven as we'll play," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They're very well-coordinated. There's no weakness. There's not one guy that you go, ‘Boy, let's attack this guy,' because they're very sound across the board."

Ogden agreed that familiarity with the 3-4 is helpful, but pointed out that Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's version differs from the Steelers.

A major potential pratfall is the outbreak of injuries Baltimore experienced against Jacksonville. Mulitalo had to shift over to right tackle because Brooks was out, leaving left guard to Rabach.

Right guard Bennie Anderson left the game with a knee injury then was forced back into the lineup when his replacement, Jason Thomas, went down with a strained calf. Now, Brooks is the only apparent lingering concern.

"I think we're finally starting to find our niche," said Ogden, whose line has given up 15 sacks. "If we can do some things against Pittsburgh, we'll be well on the way to where we need to be."

Pittsburgh ranks second in the league in red zone touchdown percentage, allowing touchdowns on 33.3 percent of possessions inside the 20-yard line. The Steelers slant their defensive linemen a lot and have used a plethora of blitzes for their 19 sacks, including 3.5 from Clark Haggans, Gildon's backup.

"You have to keep your head on a swivel and anticipate what they're going to do," Mulitalo said. "It's going to be a dogfight."

There's also a physical aspect to an encounter with the Steelers' front seven that the Ravens' linemen say they're looking forward to.

"You've got to be tough to block Pittsburgh," Rabach said. "They play nasty. We have to do the same thing and play smart."

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