Rookies in key roles Monday night

PITTSBURGH (AP) -Nothing in their college careers prepared Joe Flacco and Rashard Mendenhall for this.

When the Baltimore Ravens drafted Flacco with the No. 18 pick and the Pittsburgh Steelers took Mendenhall at No. 23 in April, neither team anticipated its rookie would start when the teams met in late September.

Ready or not, as Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said, the two first-rounders will play potentially pivotal roles Monday night during an important early-season game that could establish the winner as the AFC North front-runner.

Flacco, a quarterback who was playing at Delaware a year ago, hasn't met up yet with a defense as physical and unpredictable as Pittsburgh's. The Steelers' starters have allowed only two touchdowns in three games.

Mendenhall, a former Illinois star thrust into the lineup because of Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker's knee injury, hasn't seen much of the NFL at all, with his 10 carries restricted to a season-opening rout of Houston.

There's no primer or how-to DVD for Flacco and Mendenhall to experience all that will be crowded into three prime-time hours during their first NFL marquee game. They've been told what it's going to be like, they've watched game videos, but they haven't been there.

Their teammates offered this advice: Keep your eyes open, your mouth shut, your chinstrap buckled and earplugs are recommended. Trash talking is a rite of passage for any rookie during a Ravens-Steelers game, and is impossible to tune out.

Perhaps Mendenhall should have remembered that, according to Ravens rookie Ray Rice, before he sent Rice a text message bragging about the big game he expects to have.

It's hard to throw a guy into a Monday night game, especially against Baltimore,'' Steelers guard Kendall Simmons said.You can tell him what it's like. You're going to get hit, talked about, everything else. They're going to hit you cheap and do whatever it is, and you've got to be ready for it.''

Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal drew an analogy that befits Flacco and Mendenhall.

When you're at home, if you're a little brother and if you get into a fight and you make it to the house, then your big brother can protect you. Now, guess what?'' he said.The little brother has to go into the woods by himself.''

Or, in this case, into Heinz Field, where the Steelers (2-1) have never lost a Monday night home game. Then again, they didn't lose one in their final nine seasons at Three Rivers Stadium, either; they are 13-0 in Monday night home games since last losing in 1991.

Flacco figured to have played in Heinz by now because he was recruited by Pitt. Realizing early on he would be stuck to the Panthers' bench behind three-year starter Tyler Palko, he transferred to Delaware.

It's kind of weird that my first start in Pittsburgh will be on Monday night in an NFL game, not a college game,'' Flacco said.But I'm not really looking at that. It's an NFL game. It's Monday night and it should be a lot of fun to go out there and play a division opponent.''

Of course, Flacco isn't the only Ravens rookie in this one: John Harbaugh has been in the league for years, but this is his first Baltimore-Pittsburgh game as a head coach. The Ravens have won four of the last five between the rivals.

According to the NFL, Flacco could become the first rookie quarterback since Cincinnati's Greg Cook in 1969 to start and win his team's first three games of a season.

Against winless Cincinnati (0-3) and Cleveland (0-3), the Ravens (2-0) asked Flacco to manage the game, don't make mistakes and hand the ball off; Baltimore ran 44 times in beating the Browns 28-10. Flacco threw two interceptions but mostly accomplished what he was asked to do. In this one, he gets a break because the Steelers defense will be without Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton (groin sprain).

Still, as Neal said, ``We haven't arrived. We've played two games against teams that haven't won a game yet.''

With Ben Roethlisberger running the Steelers' offense - he threw five TD passes in a half against Baltimore last season - Flacco probably must manufacture more offense himself.

Roethlisberger has his own worries, namely trying to stay on his feet long enough to throw the ball. He was sacked eight times, threw an interception, lost a fumble and drew a safety during a 15-6 loss at Philadelphia last week, yet he can only guess what's going on in Flacco's head.

I know for me, it was utter confusion, to figure out what the snap count was on, to figure out who the mike (middle) linebacker was, who I was going to hand off to,'' Roethlisberger said of starting as a rookie in 2004.It was just trying to figure everything out. I'm sure he's going through some of that. Watching a little bit of what he's done so far, I think they're trying to make it very simple for him.''

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