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 do."
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, that's big."