2011 NFL Preview: Back(ers) in Black, Gold ... and Purple

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The Steelers and Ravens always have something else going for them when they meet besides close games, brutal hitting and a division title on the line. They have great linebackers, lots of them.

"The Steelers and Ravens, I think, are by far the quality linebackers of this league," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "When you look at the Pro Bowl team, somehow it's those two teams, all four guys."

He's not far off. The Steelers have had six linebackers make 13 Pro Bowl teams over the past 10 years. The Ravens have had five linebackers make 16 Pro Bowl teams in the past decade. Each has had a linebacker as NFL defensive player of the year in the previous 10 years -- Ray Lewis of Baltimore in 2003 (he also earned the award in '00) and James Harrison in '08.

"I think over the years you look at how these teams are built with their front seven, that's always been the staple for both teams," Lewis said this week. "For years and years, you look at the draft and the guys they bring in every year, and it's always a boatload of talent at the linebacker position. One of the reasons is because of the different types of blitz schemes and things that we do.

"These are two franchises that truly believe in their linebackers."

The Steelers' starting four contains three who have made Pro Bowls -- Harrison, James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley -- and Lawrence Timmons, whom the Steelers believe will get there soon. The Ravens have a sure-fire Hall of Famer in Lewis, another Pro Bowler in Terrell Suggs and two others that Arians says are underrated and disruptive, Jarret Johnson and Jameel McClain.

"Oh, God, it's like watching us play," Arians said of the Ravens linebackers. "Our defenses are so similar. They play a little bit more even front than we do but those four guys ... the guy who is underrated is Jarret Johnson. His motor is nonstop. He's going full force. McClain is kind of like Timmons, he's a fast guy. And Ray and Farrior, you can't fool them."

Dick LeBeau, the Steelers' ageless defensive coordinator, points out that it's not only the linebackers but two great defenses, which have produced five of the past 11 NFL defensive players of the year (besides Lewis and Harrison, it was Ed Reed in 2004 and Troy Polamalu last season).

But LeBeau concedes that "as part of the history of the franchises, they've had great, great linebackers."

No longer in a tight spot

The Steelers bemoaned the loss of veteran Matt Spaeth, their No. 2 tight end who signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bears. They searched long and hard to replace him, entertaining two veterans in training camp, Daniel Graham and Reggie Kelly, and signing another, John Gilmore.

In the end, they decided that David Johnson, a tight end they had been using at fullback, would fill the old Spaeth role, and Arians sounds as if they are better off for it. Johnson and Heath Miller will start at the line of scrimmage at times and at others move into the backfield.

"It gives us more flexibility because in the past when we put David in you knew we were more of a two-back team," Arians said. "Now with Heath and David in the game, you don't know if we're two tight ends or two backs.

"He is the perfect tight end for me because he can play on the line of scrimmage and block the big guys. He can get in the backfield and play fullback. You [as a defense] can't have your best call vs. two backs or your best call against two tight ends. You're just calling defenses on down and distances because that's the beauty of the two tight end offense."

Lining up the positions

Here are other offensive personnel decisions the Steelers have made, courtesy of Arians:

• If Jerricho Cotchery, who did not practice because of a hamstring injury serious enough to have an MRI exam Thursday, cannot play, Arnaz Battle will serve as the No. 5 receiver. Battle led the Steelers in the preseason with 11 receptions.

• If something happens to Maurkice Pouncey, who is wearing a brace on his injured left ankle, starting right guard Doug Legrusky would move to center. Trai Essex is the No. 3 center, a backup guard and a backup tackle.

• Rookie Marcus Gilbert is the No. 3 tackle.

• Rashard Mendenhall may not play as much as he did last season, when he carried 324 times in the regular season and 61 times in the postseason. Issac Redman will be No. 2, have a short-yardage role and share the third-down duties with Mewlede Moore.

"We have a nice, quality rotation there to where Rahsard's not going to be out there 50-60 plays. He should be in the game 35, 45 and everyone else will share the rest."

Arians acknowledged that Mendenhall would be the best back on third downs, "but there are times he needs to rest. That's a good place. We have quality to give him his rest."

Quick hits

• Nine players, more than one-sixth of the 53-man roster, have changed their numbers since the last preseason game. Their new numbers (and old) are Cortez Allen 26 (39), Curtis Brown 31 (40), Jerricho Cotchery 89 (82), Marcus Gilbert 77 (65), Cameron Heyward 97 (95), Steve McClendon 90 (67), Weslye Saunders 82 (44), Chris Scott 71 (61) and Jason Worilds 93 (97).

• Rookie LB Chris Carter, like Cotchery, did not practice Thursday because of a lingering hamstring injury.

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.


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