Willie Parker has been one of the NFL's young, emerging running backs - but not against the Ravens.
In six meetings against the Ravens, Parker is averaging just 43.7 yards and has never gained more than 63 yards or scored a rushing touchdown. His ability to run the football against the Ravens on Sunday could determine whether the Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., next month.
Free safety Ed Reed said the success of the Ravens' run defense is grounded in the unit's linemen and linebackers.
"The front seven [is] doing a great job," he said. "It's not just with Willie Parker, it's just with running backs in general. They take pride in stopping the run. We take pride in stopping the run, but it's a totally different game now. Willie Parker is looking a lot healthier. He's running the ball a lot tougher, a lot harder. So, we've definitely got to step our game up."
Parker certainly looked good Sunday, powering his way to 146 yards and two touchdowns in Pittsburgh's 35-24 win over the San Diego Chargers. Parker's performance came just a few weeks after he sounded off about the team straying from its power-running mentality.
He has caught the attention of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who said: "You saw in that San Diego game, he hit that corner and got around it. That's what we have to do - we have to set our edges and make sure that we can keep him in and box him in. When he's healthy, he does a great job making it to the corner and running down the sideline."
Parker recognizes the difficulty of facing a defense that has not surrendered 100 yards to a running back in the past 36 games.
"They're stingy," Parker said. "The thing about the Ravens is they are going to fight like we are going to fight. It is going to be a tough, brutal matchup."
Five starters, including linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Samari Rolle, missed their second consecutive day of practice.
Suggs (strained right shoulder) and Rolle (groin) were joined on the sideline by wide receivers Derrick Mason (knee, dislocated left shoulder, trapezius) and Mark Clayton (thigh), and defensive tackle Justin Bannan (foot).
Fullback Le'Ron McClain (sprained right ankle) and linebacker Jarret Johnson (left calf) were upgraded to limited participation after sitting out Wednesday's session. Linebacker Ray Lewis (shoulder), Reed (sprained left knee), tight end Todd Heap (back) and fullback Lorenzo Neal (shoulder) were limited for a second straight day.
Matt Stover is well aware of the challenges of kicking at Heinz Field.
Routinely rated as one of the worst playing surfaces in the NFL, the stadium's turf is practically nonexistent between the hash marks and through the entire length of the field. The hardest part, according to Stover, involves finding firm footing to kick field goals.
"It's not the kicking actually, it's the planting and it's the pushing to get to the ball," said Stover, who has connected on 10 of 12 field-goal attempts in his career at Heinz Field, which opened for the 2001 season. "If your feet are slipping and sliding and then you plant, your foot moves, your hips move, everything moves. So you've got to be really soft on your feet and make sure you hit the ball clean."
The Ravens announced yesterday that buses carrying players, coaches and other team officials will greet fans outside Boscov's at the Owings Mills Mall after Sunday's AFC championship game. Boscov's is directly off the Red Run Boulevard mall entrance, and the buses are expected to arrive at the mall between 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. The Ravens will go from their plane onto buses on the tarmac before heading to Owings Mills Mall, and fans arriving at the team's training facility in Owings Mills will be directed by Baltimore County Police to the mall. ... After practicing outside Wednesday, the Ravens moved practice yesterday to their indoor facility in Owings Mills. ... Defensive end Trevor Pryce will be playing in his fourth AFC championship game, and for the third time, the opponent is Pittsburgh. "That's really bizarre to me," said Pryce, who played for the Denver Broncos when they beat the Steelers in 1998 and lost to them in 2005. "I guess I'm always looking at them every time I see the schedule, and I'm like, 'Here we go again.' "