The din in the new football stadium at Camden Yards in Baltimore
was deafening just before kickoff on Sunday when Ravens
assistant equipment manager J.J. Miller walked up to center Jeff
Mitchell, breathing deeply before the first NFL regular-season
game of his life. "Need some air?" Miller said, wielding a pump.
Helmets contain air-filled bladders to cushion the head, and the
pump's needle can be inserted in the top of the helmet to
inflate the padding to a player's desired pressure. Mitchell, a
second-year player who spent the '97 season on injured reserve,
had never taken air, but he figured this might be a good time to
start. Before almost every snap in this game, Mitchell would
line up opposite Joel Steed, the Steelers' 308-pound Pro Bowl
nosetackle. Inside linebacker Levon Kirkland, another Pro Bowl
player, would usually be positioned just behind Steed.
"Gimme a pump," Mitchell said.
Pittsburgh is one of only four teams that play the 3-4 defense,
with a nosetackle directly over the center, and Steed may be the
best noseman in the game. Each night last week the 6'4",
300-pound Mitchell would pop a tape of the Steelers' defense
into the VCR at his apartment, but he had a hard time figuring
out Steed. "Half the time he was dropping back like a linebacker
because they do so much zone blitzing," Mitchell recalled after
Sunday's game. "I came in not having a great read on what he'd
First play: On an Errict Rhett run over right tackle, Mitchell
steered Steed left before Steed flung him down; Rhett picked up
one yard. Call it a draw. First play of the next series: On a
Rhett run off left guard, Mitchell drove Steed left, and Rhett
picked up six yards. A Mitchell win. Near the end of the first
quarter, Baltimore had run seven times for 25 yards, and
offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz told his group, "Keep
hammering 'em! Keep hammering 'em!"
All told, Baltimore ran 63 plays in a 20-13 loss. Against a
defense that ranked first in the league against the run in '97,
giving up 82.4 yards per game, the Ravens rushed for 112 yards.
Mitchell and Steed were head up on the approximately 34 snaps,
and the defender made one tackle. "He's got good size, good arm
span, good technique," Steed said afterward. "He holds, but they
all do. Good player."
Sucking down his third can of Gatorade an hour after the game,
Mitchell reflected on his day. "I feel like I did my job," he
said. "I guess I'm supposed to look across the line and see this
great nosetackle and this great linebacker behind him, but I
don't do that. I can't. Any defensive lineman's capable of
kicking my ass."
Mitchell took another long gulp and cracked a smile, knowing he
had stalemated one of the best defensive linemen in the game. "I
didn't get my quarterback killed," he said. "For a center,
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO STRONG START Mitchell (60) held his own against Steed. [Jeff Mitchell and Joel Steed in game]