Mendenhall returns to lineup vs. Ravens
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In a game in which the Steelers will be without their top quarterback and top receiver, it is something of a small victory for the offense to have its top running back return to the lineup.
Rashard Mendenhall, who has missed the past four games with an Achilles tendon injury, is expected to return and start Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens (7-2) at Heinz Field.
But the Steelers running game has been operating pretty well without him, averaging 140 yards in the four games Mendenhall did not play. They also had three 100-yard rushing performances in those four games -- two by Jonathan Dwyer and one by Isaac Redman.
"He has that home run hit," Redman said of Mendenhall. "He has that speed. He's faster than me and Dwyer. He's capable of outrunning safeties and corners and he can bring the power game as well.
"It's going to be tough to be able to deal with all three of us."
The offense could use some good news because they will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown against the Ravens.
Roethlisberger will be replaced by Byron Leftwich, who will be making his first start since September 2009. The Steelers have never beaten the Ravens without Roethlisberger (0-4).
Brown did not practice all week and will miss his second game in a row with a high-ankle sprain. Also, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu will miss his sixth game in a row with a torn right calf muscle -- robbing the Steelers of three of its top players for their showdown with the Ravens.
"Even with a backup quarterback, we still have a lot of confidence with Byron," Mendenhall said. "He's made a lot of plays in this league. We feel good with what we have as an offense going into this game."
Mendenhall was injured Oct. 11 in Tennessee, which was his second game back after returning from offseason anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
He has been practicing for several weeks, but the Steelers wanted to be sure he was fully healthy before letting him return. Mendenhall said he is not limited at all in his running ability.
"I wouldn't step out there if that was the case," he said. "I feel good where I'm at. I want to continue to go off that."
The Steelers are expected to dress all six running backs for the game because of special-teams duties by Baron Batch and Will Johnson.
When the Ravens use three wide receivers, cornerback Keenan Lewis will have no trouble recognizing the player lined across from him.
Jacoby Jones, the Ravens' No. 3 receiver who averages 17.1 yards on 15 receptions, is from the same section of New Orleans as Lewis and the two are good friends.
But Lewis is not treating this as a reunion. He said he won't talk to Jones before or during the game and might not even speak to him after the game, either.
"We always talk; he's like a big brother to me," Lewis said. "He makes sure I'm doing the right thing and I check on him every now and then and see how he's doing. But there won't be no phone calls, no nothing. He knows that, I know that.
"He knows this if for bragging rights. I don't want texts, I don't want calls, no nothing. Don't text me. We'll talk after game, not even after this game. I'll just walk past him after this game. Maybe after the next game, the second game, I'll see what's up."
Lewis has been one of the surprises for a Steelers defense that ranks No. 1 overall and against the pass in the league.
He has been lauded by coach Mike Tomlin for "challenging the ball" and leads the team with 16 passes defensed. The only player in the league with more is Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings (18), though the NFL and Elias Sports Bureau consider passes defensed to be an unofficial statistic.
Jones also leads the NFL in kick returns with a 38.6-yard average after becoming the first player in league history to have scoring returns of at least 105 yards in the same season.
"That's a good football player," Lewis said of Jones, who was acquired in free agency from the Houston Texans and signed a two-year, $7 million deal. "That's a friend of mine. I'm pretty sure he going to come to play. He definitely knows I'm coming to play.
"I told him this summer, he told me this summer. We shook on it. We know what it is. So let the battle begin."
First Published November 17, 2012 12:00 am