New Steelers NTs Ready For Rice

Al Woods, Loni Fangupo and even Ziggy Hood are prepared to replace Steve McLendon at nose tackle Thursday in Baltimore.

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice "one of the best backs that ever played."

If that's true, LeBeau's run defense is THE best run defense that's ever played.

After all, this year's Steelers held Rice to 45 yards on 15 carries in the earlier meeting, and that wasn't even his worst game against them. Not even close.

Rice has had seven worse games out of the 12 he's played against the Steelers, but Thursday night Rice will run against a Steelers defense that not only will be without Casey Hampton at nose tackle but without Hampton's heir apparent, Steve McLendon, who'll miss the game with a sprained ankle.

In McLendon's place will be converted defensive end Al Woods, who likely will make his first start, IF the Steelers open in their base defense.

That's not a certainty, because McLendon played only 17 snaps last game against the Ravens' spread offense.

Yet in those 17 snaps, McLendon clearly dominated Ravens center Gino Gradkowski.

Even the humble Woods wouldn't deny that.

"Yeah, he did," Woods said with a smile and a shake of the head.

Woods would like to get himself some face time with Gradkowski, the brother of teammate Bruce Gradkowski. And Woods appears to be ready. He's coming off a game in which he not only recorded his first sack with the Steelers, but his first two, both of Cleveland Browns QB Brandon Weeden.

Woods was a 4-3 shade nose tackle at LSU, and a 3-4 defensive end with the Steelers, but was moved to the 3-4 nose tackle position last spring in order to expand his versatility.

"Maybe they saw something," said Woods. "Maybe they saw I was a better nose, so I just took it and ran with it."

Woods was drafted in the fourth round in 2010 by Tampa Bay, spent time with Seattle, and then joined the Steelers' active roster in November of 2011. He had two tackles that season, two in 2012, and is now a top reserve at two positions.

Last week against Cleveland, Woods had the two sacks among his four tackles. He's averaging 11 snaps per game, and isn't worried if he has to double, or even triple, that number Thursday night in Baltimore.

"Eating right, a lot of cardio, drinking a lot of water, hydrating your body, and just having the right mindset of just getting ready to go play," Woods explained.

Behind Woods in the post-Hampton hierarchy are Loni Fangupo, or even Ziggy Hood in an emergency. Fangupo, a 324-pounder, is a natural nose tackle, but didn't take his first snaps with the team until Sunday, when he took four against the Browns.

"(Coach John Mitchell) Mitch believes that a guy's got to sit out a year and see things and learn more, so I just have to keep working and continue gaining coach's trust," said Fangupo, a 27-year-old in his second NFL season.

Last year Fangupo played for the Seattle Seahawks in a big game against the San Francisco 49ers, and "had a great game," he said. "There was one play they threw it down the field 35 yards and I was booking it and I dove for the tackle and missed and hit my own safety and almost put him to sleep. He came up to me after the game and said, 'We can't be doing that no more, Fangupo. You almost ended my career.'"

However, it was the end of Fangupo's Seahawks career. The team was in a numbers crunch at a different position and released Fangupo with the hope of re-signing him to their practice squad if he cleared waivers.

But he didn't. The Steelers claimed Fangupo and he beat out Alameda Ta'amu for the back-up NT job at training camp.

"I have a feel for it," Fangupo said. "I believe in my abilities. I believe in my knowledge of the game. I stay focused with the guys and the things they do, words they use, so when I get in we're just going flying instead of me being behind. I've got the plays down. I believe in my work ethic. I believe in my ability. When I get the opportunity, I get it.

"I'm ready whenever they need me," he added. "I'm ready. I've been working ALL my life for this."

And one of the great ones, Ray Rice, awaits.

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