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Steelers vs. Ravens: Depth of nose tackle position key element Thursday

The Steelers will be without Steve McLendon Thursday, giving them a lack of film on the players who will assume that position Thursday against the Baltimore Ravens. That will be an advantage for Pittsburgh.

Matt Sullivan

Throughout the tenure of John Harbaugh in Baltimore, he got used to seeing No. 98 plugging the middle of the Steelers' defensive line. He was the key focus of Harbaugh's ambush cut-blocking plan in the Ravens' 35-7 rout of Pittsburgh to start off the 2011 season. Hampton was also the main reason why the Ravens have rushed for little success against the Steelers, top to bottom, since 2008.

Things have changed. What was once as inevitable as a brawl in the stands at M&T Bank Stadium is going to require a good amount of prep work.

No. 98 is now Vince Williams, a player who may or may not be replaced by Troy Polamalu at inside linebacker. Polamalu may be playing linebacker, he may be playing safety. It can change play-to-play, or even during the play.

The Steelers' regular nose tackle, Steve McLendon, won't play Sunday, giving way to Al Woods. Or Loni Fangupo. Or even Ziggy Hood.

Maybe all three.

Sometimes losing a player creates an advantage; not in personnel but just in damaged prep time.

The Ravens have film of McLendon at nose tackle, and are just starting to collect enough film on Polamalu as an inside linebacker to recognize tendencies to exploit. But what will the Steelers do with Hood at nose tackle? How does Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau attack with all three of their 5-technique ends on the field - Brett Keisel (who is expected back from a foot injury that's kept him out of the last two games), Cameron Heyward and Hood?

The absence of McLendon doesn't make them a better defense top to bottom, but it does create the advantage based in the element of surprise. The Steelers know what Woods can do, the Ravens don't have that great of a sense of that. The sub packages the Steelers can put on the field based on the unique personnel they'll have for this game can create what they have not been able to do against Baltimore the last few times they've played - confusion.

While some may be asking who it will be at nose tackle, the better question isn't which one, it will be when each of them will assume what role.

And in a short week of preparation, this will be an advantage for the Steelers against Baltimore's struggling offensive line.

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