Colon replaces Starks at RT

PITTSBURGH – Beat up by the Baltimore Ravens a month ago, the Steelers enter the rematch with a new starter, a brawler from the Bronx.

But when Willie Colon makes his NFL debut Sunday at right tackle in place of injured Max Starks, he'll feel at home for the holidays.

"It'll be Christmas Eve and my whole family will be down," said Colon. "It'll be special."

Adding to the festivities will be a surprise Colon's cooking up for his sister, Joy Smith. Her boyfriend will propose to her at Heinz Field, and Colon's hoping to have the question posed on the Jumbotron.

Would Willie's name be included, too?

"Nooooo," he said. "Man, I hope not."

Colon hopes his name's never mentioned Sunday. He wants his first NFL start to pass anonymously. The last time the two teams played, the Ravens had nine sacks and all of the Pittsburgh Steelers' linemen were exposed that day.

"I saw a lot of guys who I look up to have tough days," Colon said. "It was a total team domination. It seemed like we really couldn't get going. Usually Joey [Porter]'s making big plays, or Hines [Ward], somebody shows up to make plays, but we just couldn't get it going. They're a tough defense but we have to get it done."

And that's why the Steelers need the Bronx Brawler. Colon was a fourth-round pick out of Division I-AA Hofstra, and was born and raised in the Bronx, where only the fittest survive. He's a tough guy with a tough guy reputation.

"I guess that's why they brought me in," he said. "I'll just try to get the job done to the best of my ability, go out there and fly around and have fun."

Colon draws the start over Trai Essex, a second-year player who's been active for every game this season as the team's "swing man" -- a backup who can fill in at any position besides center.

Since Essex started four games last season, and since Colon has yet to be activated for even backup duty, the move comes as a surprise.

"Yeah, but it's cool," Essex said. "Our offense tends to dress seven linemen, and that one guy who's not backing up center has to know all the other positions, so it kind of makes it a tough decision for the coaches."

Is the ability to do more hurting Essex in this instance?

"I don't like to think of it that way," he said. "Although I do want to go out there and play, I do know my role on this team so I've got to play it to the best of my ability."

Essex (6-4, 324) played in six games last season. His first start was Nov. 20 at Baltimore in place of Marvel Smith at left tackle. The Steelers lost in overtime, 16-13. They allowed a season-high six sacks and rushed for a season-low 70 yards, and Essex was part of the problem.

"That first game was kind of tough," he said. "But from that game forward I felt like I improved tremendously, and this year even more so."

Essex has played in all but one game this season. He's been used mainly on special teams but has mopped up at left tackle late in games.

"I'm ages better, just as far as getting used to the speed of the game and the mentality," Essex said. "When the vets come in and tell you this game is mostly mental and not as physical, they're not lying."

That's what Colon's about to find out. The 6-3, 302-pounder came out of the Bronx with a reputation for being a nasty player. He solidified that rep by tussling with Clark Haggans early at training camp and then blowing him a kiss as the two were separated. No one would be surprised if Colon scraps with a Raven or two, but he's more worried about the mental aspect Essex mentioned.

"I'm getting there, fighting through the forest a little bit," Colon said. "The guys are helping me out and making me feel comfortable. I just have to go out there, pick it up as fast as I can, and compete."

NOTES -- Troy Polamalu returned to practice. He's listed as questionable with an MCL sprain. Center Jeff Hartings (knee) missed practice but is listed as probable. ... Ravens Coach Brian Billick said that his All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden (questionable/toe) probably won't play. Other Ravens listed as questionable are C Mike Flynn (thigh), TE Todd Heap (thigh), WR Derrick Mason (thigh), CB Samari Rolle (neck), S Gerome Sapp (thigh) and TE Daniel Wilcox (knee/back). None of them practiced Wednesday. ... The Steelers placed Chad Brown and Chidi Iwuoma on injured reserve and signed cornerback Jovon Johnson off their practice squad and safety Andre Lott. But Lott injured his ankle at Wednesday's practice and is questionable for the game. ... The Steelers signed linebacker Richard Seigler to their practice squad.

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