Steelers await young Bettis

The Ravens' bruising running back Le'Ron McClain is recovering from ankle injury, but he believes he can wear the Steelers down.

PITTSBURGH – Dick LeBeau answered every possible question about the great and unbelievable and brilliant Joe Flacco – the rookie quarterback who's drawing comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger these days.

But then the Steelers' defensive coordinator was asked if running back Le'Ron McClain might actually be the Baltimore Ravens' biggest surprise this season.

"Yeah, I think that he probably has been," LeBeau said. "But he's no surprise to the guys that go against him now. He has done it and he is a special guy. He's going to do it for a while."

McClain was drafted out of Alabama two years ago in the fourth round, an abnormally high round for a fullback. He carried only eight times as a rookie, but came back as a 260-pounder and, because of an injury to Willis McGahee, was moved to tailback. He rushed for 86 yards in this season's opener against Cincinnati, and two games later was starting against the Steelers.

McClain announced his presence with a 2-yard touchdown run in which he pulverized linebacker Lawrence Timmons. He rushed for 63 yards in that game, and in the second meeting McClain rushed for 87 yards and was voted to the Pro Bowl that week. In two games against the Steelers, McClain rushed 39 times for 150 yards, a better total than the other divisional backs, Jamal Lewis (42-132) and Cedric Benson (31-87).

"There is nothing accidental about the way he runs and his success," LeBeau said. "He has vision. He has power. It doesn't take him long to get running north and south, yet he has that innate ability to find the soft spot. I am a fan of (number) 33 because he is a good player and he will be for a while. We are going to have to wrestle with him for a while."

LeBeau was asked to compare McClain to any other running back.

"He reminds me of Jerome," LeBeau said of Jerome Bettis. "I don't think that you should put that on him right now, but I remember when Jerome first came out of Notre Dame and we went out to play the Rams his first season. We had an awful time with him."

Of course, the Steelers traded for Bettis in 1996. Before the deal was made, LeBeau was asked to give his opinion.

"By all means, bring him on our side of the field," LeBeau said. "Jerome is probably, in my opinion, the best big back for making cut adjustments into the holes. I see some of that in this guy."

McClain finished this season with 902 yards (3.9 avg.) and added 75 in the first round of the playoffs. But a sore ankle slowed him last week against Tennessee and McClain rushed for only 12 yards on 12 carries. He missed the Ravens' first practice this week, and returned Thursday on a limited basis.

"The ankle is doing good," McClain told Baltimore reporters. "I got a little more work today, so I'll see how it feels in the morning."

McClain is expected to play, and that would fulfill his own prophesy. When he left the field after the second loss to the Steelers, he told his rivals he'd see them again.

"And here we go," he said yesterday.

McClain admitted to having great respect for the Steelers' defense, but also admitted to a great deal of self-confidence.

"Hopefully, I can be wearing the guys through the first, second and third (quarters) and they won't want to tackle me in the fourth," McClain said. "I'm looking forward to it."

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