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Monday, Oct. 26, 2009

This was the game you figured Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would give left tackle Max Starks plenty of help.

Minnesota Vikings All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen, who embarrasses offensive linemen and devours quarterbacks, came to Heinz Field on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon to face his offseason workout buddy and pad his gaudy stat line. Allen departed with no sacks and the Vikings' first loss as the Steelers took an exciting 27-17 win.

In the end, it didn't matter that the Steelers' defense scored more touchdowns than the Steelers' offense, or that Minnesota dominated time of possession by 13 minutes.

All that matters to Tomlin is that the Steelers improved to 5-2 while toppling Minnesota from the unbeaten ranks.

All that matters to Starks is that he did his job so well that he held Allen, who entered the game ranked third in the NFL with 7.5 sacks, to no sacks.

"We train together," Starks said. "He's a regular guy to me. He's just Jared. You step up your game to play against him. He's a challenge because he's always going and going and going. He's a high-energy guy."

The Steelers trusted Starks so much that, with the exception of a couple of pass plays where they slid a tight end to his side, they allowed their left tackle to block Allen one on one.

That's showing confidence in a player the Steelers didn't seem to want before they finally got around to re-signing him during the offseason.

"I always knew I had it," Starks said. "I moved from right tackle to left tackle, and I had to change what I do as far as my footwork and mentality because you're getting a quicker guy as opposed to a stronger guy."

Defensive ends don't come much quicker, or stronger, than Allen, an absolute beast who recorded 14.5 sacks last season in his first year with the Vikings.

Since being drafted in 2004, Allen's 65 sacks are the most in the NFL.

So how did Starks fare against Allen on Ben Roethlisberger's gorgeous 40-yard touchdown pass to rookie Mike Wallace late in the first half?

Starks took Allen completely out of the play, giving his quarterback time to pick out an open receiver.

Maybe that's why Starks was the first player that Roethlisberger approached after the play. Starks reciprocated by lifting his quarterback high in the air.

"(Allen) tried to sprint upfield, cut the corner on me," Starks said. "I got a great punch on him. He tried to stop and re-set his feet. I just locked him up and held him there.

"I looked up, and Ben made a clean throw. I guess he knew it was a good play (by the offensive line). I just wanted to hold him up. We were excited. We've been here six years together. The emotion just takes over."

Starks gave himself a B-minus grade against Allen, who thought the Vikings' defense did its job.

"There isn't much you can do," Allen said. "We held them to 13 points, and that should be enough to win."

Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz, who visited the Steelers' locker room after the game, took a special interest in Starks' performance against Allen.

Munoz practiced against Starks' father, Ross Browner, when they were teammates with the Cincinnati Bengals. Munoz has followed Starks' career for a long time.

"I thought he did a good job," Munoz said. "For a big guy, he gets out there in good position.

"I'm not enamored by size. I'm enamored by technique and how quickly you can get out in your position. I thought Max did a good job getting out there in space."

That's why the Steelers finally decided to pay Starks the big bucks.

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