R. Lewis, defense ready for Mendenhall

OWINGS MILLS -- Rashard Mendenhall has already committed one rookie mistake this week, and the Baltimore Ravens' top-ranked defense is hoping to intimidate the Pittsburgh Steelers' running back into a series of errors Monday night.

Forced into the lineup due to Pro Bowl runner Willie Parker's sprained knee, the first-round draft pick from Illinois sent a joking text message to Ravens rookie running back Ray Rice, where he predicted that he would have a strong performance against a defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in a league-high 21 consecutive games.

Tame stuff as far as bulletin-board material goes, but it has been a slow week for that.

As the Ravens (2-0) take on the Steelers (2-1) in a key AFC North battle, the NFL's third-ranked rushing defense is targeting Mendenhall. He can definitely expect Baltimore to attempt to strip the football after he fumbled three times in his final two preaseason games.

"It is not a secret," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He has fumbled the ball a couple of times. I think that we would be approaching the game wrong if that was not our focus."

Mendenhall has rushed for just 28 yards on 10 carries this season. Now, he'll have to play against a defense that's allowing 70 rushing yards per game. The last time the Ravens allowed an opposing runner to eclipse the century mark was the Kansas City Chiefs' Larry Johnson on Dec. 10, 2006.

"Rashard is a very talented guy," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "You know that's a daunting task, getting your first opportunity for significant playing time versus that defense. If you look around the league, there's a lot of his peers getting their opportunities."

Even an accomplished back like Parker hasn't had much success against the Ravens with 42, 22, 29, 63 and 59 yards over his past five meetings with the Ravens.

At least outwardly, Mendenhall seems to be eagerly anticipating his matchup with Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"Oh, man, I used to play with him on video games, so I know a lot about Ray Lewis," Mendenhall said. "In this league, in this business, you're going to face great players every week. He's a great player. I look forward to playing against him."

There's an element of the unknown with Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns in his final college season prior to being drafted 23rd overall. So, the Ravens are taking him seriously.

"I like to think every back is dangerous like a Barry Sanders type guy," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I think if you don't show up and you don't play football, he's going to explode. I just always think the worst thing is going to happen."

At 5-foot-10, 225 pounds, Mendenhall is a stocky, hard-nosed runner with solid cutback skills, which was the scouting report on him heading into the draft.

He dropped a pass in a 15-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but caught another for 11 yards. He has six kickoff returns for a 19.2 average with a long return of 27 yards.

Three rookies are among the NFL's top nine rushers, including the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte (304 yards), the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson (276 yards) and the Oakland Raiders' Darren McFadden (252 yards).

"It's a rookie, so he doesn't have that experience," linebacker Bart Scott said. "Just because you're a rookie, doesn't mean you can't make big plays."

The Steelers are confident enough in the former Big Ten star that they made him their first back selected in the first round since Tim Worley in 1989 despite a bad track record where Franco Harris is the only Pittsburgh first-round runner to rush for 1,000 yards.

"He's a promising rookie," wide receiver Hines Ward said.

The Steelers have advised Mendenhall to block out all the trash talking he's likely to hear from the Ravens' loquacious defense and to concentrate his energy on his assignments.

"We told him all the nasty things that are going to be said to him Monday night by the Ravens," Steelers running back coach Kirby Wilson told Pittsburgh reporters. "We all wish we had a microphone to tape what's said to him because it's going to be hilarious. No one does it better than Lewis.

"No. 52? Professional trash talker. They do the same thing to Willie Parker. I know they're going to get after him pretty good. It will be fun to hear some of the stories when they're done come Monday night."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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