And a rookie shall lead them ...

Rashard Mendenhall (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Ravens and Steelers are the NFL's defensive titans, but tonight's game will be decided by a rookie -- on either offense.

PITTSBURGH – Willie Parker has heard it all from the Baltimore Ravens.

Of course, concocting stories of text messages for motivational purposes is a new one to Parker, but the Steelers' injured halfback knows what his replacement, rookie Rashard Mendenhall, will be facing on the field tonight.

"Man, you know those Ravens," Parker said. "The Ravens are like our defense. They're going to be physical, talk a lot, and they're like that every game. The thing about the Ravens is they do back up that talk, so I've got to give them a lot of respect and a lot of credit. A lot of teams talk and they don't back up what they say, but they've got 10, 11 guys over on that defense that will back their talk up."

The 2-0 Ravens lead the league in defense, just as they did in 2006. The 2-1 Steelers led the league in defense last year and are second this year. It's a guaranteed clash of the defensive titans, and both offenses are relying on a rookie to beat those defenses.

For the Steelers, that rookie is Mendenhall, who's carried 10 times for a mere 28 yards after an uninspiring preseason in which he fumbled three times.

Is the No. 1 pick ready?

"He's ready," said Parker. "Everybody, when it's time to step up and get in and play, you do rise up, especially when your parents, your friends want to see what you've got. I'm sure they've all been calling him all week, and that all works on you. You probably don't think you're getting jacked up, but when that game comes you're going to be jacked up."

The Ravens, of course, will focus on stripping the football. Ray Lewis promised as much during his call to Pittsburgh reporters on Monday.

"It's blood in the water," Parker said, "but at the same time (Mendenhall) knows what to expect. He didn't know what to expect in the preseason. They just threw him out there. It was totally different."

The Ravens counter with a rookie quarterback. Joe Flacco was also drafted in the first round last April. He was the Delaware quarterback who transferred from Pitt upon the arrival of Dave Wannstedt and Matt Cavanaugh. Some might call that a heady decision, and he's made enough of them in the NFL to beat the hapless Browns and Bengals. But Flacco's in for much more tonight in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have won 13 consecutive Monday night games.

"I would imagine he might have a rough time with our defense," said linebacker James Farrior. "We've been known to confuse young quarterbacks."

Ben Roethlisberger was once a confused young quarterback, but he went through his rookie season without a regular-season loss.

Still …

"It was utter confusion," Roethlisberger said, "to figure out what the snap was on, to figure out who the mike linebacker was, who I was going to hand off to. I was just trying to figure everything out. I'm sure he's going through some of that. But watching a little bit of what he's done so far, I think they're trying to make it very simple for him to put him in the best position possible."

The Ravens have run 90 times in two games, and Willis McGahee – who has 129 yards (4.3 avg.) and three touchdowns in two starts against the Steelers – has carried only 15 times. McGahee missed preseason and the opener while recovering from knee surgery, and then left the Browns game after being gouged in the right eye and poked in the left.

The right eye remains lacerated and McGahee talked as if he wouldn't be able to play tonight, but the Ravens list him as probable. The Ravens' leading rusher is converted fullback Le'Ron McClain (36-152) while rookie Ray Rice has rushed 27 times for 85 yards.

The Ravens hope to crack a Steelers' run-stopping unit that will be without nose tackle Casey Hampton and right end Brett Keisel, but they've been replaced by veterans Chris Hoke and Travis Kirschke.

Injuries might also open the door for the Steelers' offense. The Ravens have been without nose tackle Kelly Gregg, and for the first time this season will be without cornerback Samari Rolle (shoulder) and strong safety Dawan Landry (spinal cord concussion).

Of course, attacking the Ravens' secondary would necessitate Roethlisberger having more than two seconds to throw. To do that, Mendenhall must find some success running on Lewis and Co.

"You just take what you can get against that defense," said Parker. "They thrive on stopping the run, no matter what. You can pass on them all day, but they will not let you run on them."

Jim Wexell's new book "Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon" is available at PittsburghSportsPublishing.com.

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