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Run Defense Gets Rookie Test


Most NFL players know that it's nearly impossible to run against the Ravens. Most running backs know that first-hand.

Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Rashard Mendenhall is going to test that principle in his first-career start when the Ravens come to town for Monday Night Football.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wasted no time in declaring star running back Willie Parker out for this week's matchup, one day after Parker sprained his left knee against the Philadelphia Eagles.

That left Mendenhall, the 23rd-overall selection in the 2008 draft, as the starter against a defense that only gives up an average of 70.0 rushing yards per game, third-best in the league.

In fact, the Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in an NFL-best 21 games, dating back to Dec. 10, 2006.

Parker may have led the league with eight 100-yard rushing games last year, and he may have topped 1,200 yards in each of the last three seasons, but he definitely didn't do it against the Ravens. Over his past five meetings with Baltimore, Parker has run for 42, 22, 29, 63 and 59 yards, respectively.

Still, the Ravens aren't looking past a Steelers ground game that has typically been prolific in recent years, even if it now features an untested rookie.

"If you start getting caught up in all that stuff, other things hurt you, other people hurt you and things like that," said linebacker Ray Lewis. "What you do is you just prepare for Pittsburgh, bottom line, just like everybody's going to be in there. They still have pieces.

"Don't misunderstand what's going on there: They still have pieces to make plays and things like that. We have to come in there and just play our game."

Mendenhall, 5-foot-10, 225 pounds, was a one-year starter at Illinois, where he totaled 1,681 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in 2007. He currently has 10 carries for 28 yards in the regular season.

But, in his most extensive action in the preseason, Mendenhall lost three fumbles in his final two contests.

"It is not a secret," said Lewis. "He has fumbled the ball a couple of times. So, if that would be our focus, I think that we would be approaching the game wrong if that was not our focus."

The Ravens, however, know how a rookie running back can impact an offense. Second-round draft pick Ray Rice has been stellar, rushing for 64 yards in Week 1 while filling in for an injured Willis McGahee.

"It's a rookie, so he doesn't have that experience," linebacker Bart Scott explained. "But I'm sure some guys came in thinking the same thing about our rookies, and our rookies have fared well. Just because you're a rookie doesn't mean you can't make big plays.

"You still have to respect them as NFL football players."

Not much is known about Mendenhall on a professional level. His only carries came in the preseason and the regular-season opener against the Houston Texans, leaving little film to study.

That's why linebacker Terrell Suggs is expecting the worst on Monday.

"I like to think every back is dangerous, like a Barry Sanders-type guy," Suggs admitted. "I think if you don't show up and you don't play football, he's going to explode and it's going to be on you guys. I just always think the worst thing is going to happen.

"In my preparation, I just try to prepare to just stop that."

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