BALTIMORE -- It will be interesting to see how much the Ravens challenge Steelers nose tackle Al Woods, who is expected to make his first NFL start tonight at M&T Bank Stadium. Woods played well after replacing the injured Steve McLendon last Sunday in Cleveland, recording his first two sacks with the Steelers and helping limit the Browns to just 55 rushing yards.
The Ravens are next to last in the NFL in rushing offense, but they will test the Steelers more than the Browns did simply because they have Ray Rice.
Rice is having a down season by just about any statistical measure, and he rushed for 45 yards on 15 carries in the Ravens’ 19-16 loss to the Steelers last month at Heinz Field. But he is still a significant upgrade over Browns running backs Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker if only because of his receiving ability -- and his history against the Steelers.
The Steelers could try to cover for the absence of McLendon and the inexperience of rookie inside linebacker Vince Williams by playing their quarter package, something they used extensively the last time the AFC North rivals met.
The Steelers haven’t hesitated to use the personnel grouping of three safeties and three cornerbacks in most down-and-distance situations since Troy Polamalu essentially becomes a linebacker in the quarter package.
Polamalu has easily been more valuable to the Steelers this season when he has played closer to the line of scrimmage, and the seven-time Pro Bowler will be a key to containing Rice and disrupting the Ravens' offense.
Woods, for his part, isn’t likely to get overwhelmed making his first start in a nationally televised game that means everything to both the Ravens and Steelers. The fourth-year veteran is listed as a defensive end, but he has worked extensively at nose tackle.
Woods has also been in Dick LeBeau’s defense long enough -- he has been in Pittsburgh since the Steelers claimed him off waivers in November 2011 -- that the 6-foot-4, 307-pounder isn’t thinking nearly as much when he is on the field.
“I’m getting to the point where I’m comfortable,” Woods said. “I know the guys around me. It’s becoming second nature to me and I really appreciate that. I want to continue to help this football team in any way possible because I love the Steelers.”
Woods will only help himself if he plays well while filling in for McLendon, and establishes himself as a lineman who can move between end and nose tackle.
"We thought that he had the anchor ability certainly to sit down in there and police the middle of the formation," LeBeau said of playing Woods at nose tackle. "I think he did a good job last week when he went in there doing it, but I think he does a good job at end, too. I think he can play both of those positions."