Notebook: Stover bracing for tough conditions

OWINGS MILLS -- The frigid conditions at slippery Heinz Field are legendary for wreaking havoc on placekickers. With a weather forecast of snow showers and freezing temperatures for today's AFC title game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ravens kicker Matt Stover will be dealing with harsh elements as well as a notoriously soft, soggy and uneven field.

The Weather Channel forecasts a high temperature of 25 degrees by kickoff that will feel like 16 degrees with an overnight low of 12 degrees.

In what's expected to be a low-scoring contest, field-goal accuracy figures to be critical.

Stover, 40, is mindful of the problems with the sod and the wind that howls through the open end of the stadium, but he's not unduly worried about it.

"You never think like that," Stover said. "That's why I have my funny little stance, the way I approach the ball, kick the ball. Everything's been dictated by bad field conditions, by wind, weather, whatever I have to deal with. I have tried to shrink my world down enough to where if I am in an environment like that, it won't matter."

Stover estimates that Heinz Field is one of the top three toughest fields in the league to kick at. He has converted 50 of 59 career field goals against the Steelers as he prepares for his 21st game at Heinz Field.

"I would say it's the tou ghest because of the field conditions," Stover said. "It's grass and they don't replace it all the time."

Stover scored all of the Ravens' points in a 13-9 loss to the Steelers in Baltimore last month.

Now, the veteran kicker may be called upon again to provide the offense against the Steelers' top-ranked defense and the wintry conditions.

"Your form needs to be solid enough to be able to handle it," Stover said. "Any golfer will tell you the same thing: narrow your stance and shorten your backswing. It's the same kind of thing you do as a kicker."

In the past two meetings won by Pittsburgh, there has been just a total of 65 points scored with Stover and Steelers kicker Jeff Reed combining for 32 of them. Both have been extremely accurate inside 40 yards, combining for 40 of 42 field goal attempts.

"Over the years, the toughest part of the field has been the playing su rface," special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "I'm not sure the winds are that unusual this time of year in any of the northern stadiums. My understanding is that they've re-sodded the field, and we are expecting a good surface. It looked like it held up well last week."

Long snapper Matt Katula said the field affects everything about the kicking operation, including his job.

"The field is uneven, so a lot of times the ball is a half-foot below where your feet are," Katula said. "I feel bad for the kickers trying to get their plant leg down. You try to make it easy for them by getting them the ball where they want it. Matt is light on his feet, so he'll be able to handle it."

STEPPING UP: The Ravens were alarmed when right offensive guard Marshal Yanda was lost for the season with a devastating knee injury against the Indianapolis Colts. However, former second-round draft pick Chris Chester has eased past concerns about him and has developed into a stalwart at the line of scrimmage. Especially when the former Oklahoma blocking tight end pulls to lead interference on running plays.

"It kind of hurt me to see Marshal go down because he's a good personal friend of mine," said Chester, a Westminster resident. "It was a bad deal seeing him go down. I had to play in a way like Marshal was playing, he was playing at such a high level.

"I don't know if I would say I had a chip on my shoulder. I don't feel like I have t o prove anything to my teammates. They know what I'm about. I just wanted to play well, so we could continue to be successful."

STICKING AROUND?: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis is an impending unrestricted free agent.

If he's having any thoughts that this could be his final game as a Raven if the team loses, he isn't admitting to them.

"No, honestly, if I ever spoke about my future outside of Baltimore while I was playing this game right here, I would be a very selfish individual towards my teammates," Lewis said. "That's why it's never crossed my mind. I've never dealt with it.

"That's just one side of my career I don't deal with because I don't do it for that. I play the game for the love of the game. I don't get caught up into the business side of it."

Lewis is intent on playing a lot more football, though. This spring, he estimated that he would play four of five more seasons.

"I've got too much football left," he said. "I don't violate my body with nothing crazy. Playing the game of football is what I was brought up to do. It's the easiest thing I can ever do in my life is wake up and play football. I just love playing the game. So, I don't know when my day is done."

BIG CHALLENGE: Center Jason Brown as well as guards Ben Grubbs and Chester will have their hands full today with a big assignment: blocking hefty Steelers nose guard Casey Hampton.

"He's a big dude," Chester said. "He plays with good leverage. You can hear him coming. He's played for a while and he knows how to play."

Hampton is a squatty defensive lineman at 6-foot-1, 325 pounds, although he's believed to actually be much heavier than that.

"Casey is a great player," Brown said. "Of course, he definitely has a low center of gravity, but I feel that I'm built well for the job as well. I'm one of the shortest centers in the league, so hopefully I'll do a great job of getting underneath him."

QUICK HITS: The Ravens are extremely cognizant of how dangerous Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes can be as a deep threat and in the return game, especially after last week's punt return for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers. "He's a big-play guy and they are using him more and more in that role because he has had success and he has jump-started a few drives for them," Rosburg said. "He's someone you're going to have to deal with." ...

Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason has no doubt who's the better safety between the Ravens' Ed Reed and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu. "Troy is a good player, but he's not Ed Reed," Mason said. "Reed is different. Even when's not covering, he's covering. Even when he's not in the box, he's in the box. I think there two of those guys20out there, two No. 20s. One in the box and one over the top." ...

Veteran offensive tackle Willie Anderson left the game against the Tennessee Titans with a shoulder stinger. When asked how he was feeling this week, he refused to acknowledge he had ever been hurt and invented an imaginary tooth ailment. "I have a toothache," he said. "They pulled a tooth out. There's nothing wrong with my shoulder. Who said there was anything wrong with my shoulder? It's Pittsburgh-Baltimore. You pull your tooth out by tying a string to a doorknob. Whatever hurts, take it off." ...

Fullback Lorenzo Neal is under no illusions about the head-knocking tenor of this game. "They know what's coming," he said. "We know what's coming. Let's get it on. Buckle up your chinstrap." Added Steelers middle linebacker James Farrior: "When you get two bullies going up against each other, it's about who's the strongest bully." ... Ravens coach John Harbaugh is glad that director of player development O.J. Brigance will be an honorary captain today along with former Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. Brigance is dealing with ALS. "Anybody that 's followed us understands the impact O.J. has had on our football team," Harbaugh said. "I've come to admire and respect him completely. He is the guy. He deserves to be our captain in this game. Our football team will be proud to be standing with O.J. before this game." ...

This game marks rookie quarterback Joe Flacco's second return to Pittsburgh as an NFL player. Flacco transferred from t he University of Pittsburgh to Delaware after he wasn't named the starter over Tyler Palko. "It should be a lot of fun," he said. "I'm sure the fans will be crazy and ready to go for the Ravens-Steelers matchup. It should be a lot of fun to play, and it should be a lot of fun to watch. We can't wait to get there." ... A knee injury that kept Mason out of practice this week has distracted him from an aching shoulder that has plagued him for nearly three months. "The knee, it's fine," he said. "I think the good thing is that it's taking away from my shoulder. So, now I no longer have to worry about my shoulder. I'm just worried about my knee. Once game times and I get warmed up, I'm usually over it."

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

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