Gene Collier: Fangupo uses his coconut to emerge as option at NT

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Long overdue to the long, bitter, contusion-strewn history of Steelers-Ravens is a heartwarming Thanksgiving Special, evidently, making you wonder why no one thought of it until now.

So presumably this collision could be different, owing to some unprecedented circumstances.


The AFC North archrivals meet with mirror-image losing records of the 5-6 strain, for example. They have never met on a Thursday, for another. And certainly they’ve never played potential playoff politics on a night most of America is two or three helpings deep in a tryptophan stupor.

So don’t be surprised if you flip on this prime timer and see …

Oh, c’mon, who are we kidding?

It’ll be another vicious, low-scoring three-pointer decided very late in both the game and the murky Maryland night, as both defenses take their rightful places among the game’s most forbidding. Baltimore has allowed only 11 touchdowns in the past 10 games, and the Steelers have returned to spirited ball-hawkery despite consistent attrition.

The historical foundation of this series again prophesizes a verdict like 19-16, but whenever I talk foundations of any kind I like to check with Hebron Fangupo, who learned foundational science in the Kingdom of Tonga.

Fortunately, he was right there in the corner of the Steelers locker room Tuesday.

“My dad taught me that only hard work can hold up the four corners of your home, nothing else,” said Fangupo, one of Dick LeBeau’s dwindling options at nose tackle in the wake of Steve McLendon’s injury Sunday in Cleveland. “I believe in the coaches and in my preparation and, when I get my opportunity, I’m going to take advantage. This isn’t a system you just come in and play, especially for a nose tackle. They’ve been amazing around here, put out some great defenses, so I’ve got to believe in the system and believe in myself.”

Fangupo, claimed off waivers from Seattle in December, finally saw some live action against the Browns after McLendon left along with hybrid defensive end/nose tackle Al Woods. Fangupo’s wearing James Harrison’s old No. 92, but looks more like two of Harrison taped together back-to-front. Both are a relatively short 6-0, but, whereas Harrison weighed 240, Fangupo’s about 340. Officially, 324.

No one has accused him of being unable to work hard enough at cracking this defense, and the guy doesn’t possess calves the thickness of coconut trees for nothing.

“Everyone makes fun of my calves, but I always blame my dad,” Fangupo said. “He farmed on the islands, I farmed on the islands, and it was a great experience. He’d make me cut down a coconut tree and haul the log clear across the farm, through plowed land that was just like sand. My feet sinking into the land, I was just digging in for the long haul.”

The more likely starter at nose tackle Thursday night is Woods, even as he was moved from defensive end as late as training camp and has been sliding back and forth since.

“Maybe they saw something,” Woods said Tuesday. “Maybe they saw I was a better nose. I just took it and ran with it. I’m giving 110 percent on whatever they ask me to do. I feel good. Steve McLendon and all the guys in front of me are great, teaching me all the little things I need to learn. I was a little nervous at first because I don’t want to be in there making mistakes.”

Whatever few mistakes Woods has made aren’t the kind that have kept him from being productive. He got his first two career sacks against Cleveland (giving him one more than Lawrence Timmons this season) and has contributed 10 tackles and a couple of pressures. Woods, another defensive lineman released by the Seahawks in the past two years, has played in all 11 games this fall but a start Sunday would be his first in the NFL.

“It would [be meaningful],” he said. “But, right now, I’m just focusing on the Ravens and what they’re trying to do.”

In a burst of insight, Woods allowed that he’s grown “comfortable at being uncomfortable,” and frankly can’t wait to exert some authority on the course of Steelers-Ravens history.

When they last met less than six weeks ago, 60 throbbing minutes yielded but two short touchdown tosses to tight ends Heath Miller and Dallas Clark, the balance of the scoring being handled by the specialists and notarized in the final seconds on a field goal by Shaun Suisham.

Steelers 19, Ravens 16 was the fourth consecutive time and the ninth of the past 11 meetings that three points was the difference. Of course, all that could change for the holiday version. I see it more like Steelers 19, Ravens 17.

Gene Collier:

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