Go tell Max Starks

Willie Parker tries to forget his days at the University of North Carolina, but there's one play he'll never forget. It involved his friend, defensive end Julius Peppers.

"It was in practice," Parker said. "We ran an option to his side. He put his arms out and he played the quarterback and he played me, so you couldn't throw the option."

What happened?

"He buried the quarterback."

Peppers has buried a few quarterbacks since then – 51.5 of them in his 73-game pro career. He leads the Panthers with 11 sacks this season, has forced three fumbles and has 31 official quarterback hurries.

"I know he's tough. I know everything about him," Parker said. "The boy's just … we're going to have to help Max out a little bit over there. I'm telling you, I'm going to have to have a talk with Max because he can't be stepping down on Pep, because he'll beat him off the ball every time."

Max Starks will be the man lining up in front of Peppers today when the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Carolina Panthers in a battle of desperate 6-7 teams at Charlotte, North Carolina.

Premier pass rushers don't normally line up across the right offensive tackle, and when Starks went up against one earlier this season Oakland's Derrick Burgess was the game's unstoppable force.

Burgess led the NFL in sacks last season and Peppers was leading the league with 11 sacks this season after the team's ninth game. But he hasn't had a sack in four games and now ranks fourth in the league. Will the Steelers put an extra blocker on Peppers?

"Oh yeah, two maybe three," said Coach Bill Cowher. "Julius Peppers may be as good a defensive player as there is in the National Football League. You look at that defensive line. ... Their front four is really good."

Along with the 6-7, 285-pound Peppers is the team's all-time sack leader Mike Rucker on the opposite end. Rucker has one-half of a career sack more than Peppers. In the middle are 340-pound Pro Bowler Kris Jenkins and 350-pounder Maake Kemoeatu, brother of Steelers backup guard Chris Kemoeatu.

The group is the heart of the Panthers' ninth-ranked pass defense, but will also make running the ball a difficult proposition for the Steelers, who've struggled with that aspect on the road. At home, the Steelers average 5.0 yards per carry and on the road they average 2.9 per carry. Cowher was asked again about the dichotomy.

"It probably has something to do with the people we are playing," Cowher said. "I think too much is being read into that."

The Steelers have played, among others, Jacksonville, San Diego, Atlanta and Baltimore on the road. In those games they've averaged 2.5 per carry. What those teams had over the other road teams (3.5 per carry at Oakland and Cleveland) were big and physical defensive fronts. Carolina obviously fits that description with Peppers and Co.

"Their front seven is stout so we're going to have to make plays in the passing game," said Hines Ward. "I know their secondary guys are pretty banged up."

The Steelers will have Ward back after he missed two games with a knee injury. He'll team with youngsters Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington, and possibly a fast-recovering Cedrick Wilson, against a Panthers secondary that was so beat up last week against the New York Giants that two rookies started at cornerback and 32-year-old safety Mike Minter was the nickel back.

Starter Ken Lucas returned to practice this week and should start along with rookie Richard Marshall. Behind them are Dion Byrum and Derrick Strait, who were both practice-squad players earlier this season.

Offensively, the Panthers are expected to be without quarterback Jake Delhomme, who couldn't practice this week with a swollen right thumb. Chris Weinke, who's 1-16 as a starting NFL quarterback, will take his place. His weapons – Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson – give him a chance in what should be a battle for supremacy through the air. Cowher called Smith the league's best receiver, and Panthers Coach John Fox has heard it all before.

"He and Julius Peppers probably see as many double teams as anybody," Fox said. "It's tough to beat one guy in this league. Two is usually sufficient."

Then two's the magic number. Go tell Max Starks.

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