A fantasy fades into rude reality NFL WEEK 2

Steelers 31, Ravens 17

September 09, 1996|By John Eisenberg

PITTSBURGH -- Opening day was a fantasy, pure and simple, a gift from the football gods.

Yesterday was reality.

Opening day was a joyful ride on a golden afternoon; the Raiders played a backup quarterback, committed a dozen penalties and seemed to recognize that they were supposed to lose to the Ravens on Baltimore's first NFL Sunday since 1983.

Yesterday was the Steelers at their place, no charity, no cheers, no emotional stirrings.

And no more fantasy.

If opening day was a gift from the football gods, yesterday was a gift from the Dawg Pound.

A 31-17 bone for Art Modell to chew on.

Even that two-touchdown margin was misleading.

The Ravens simply were no match for the defending AFC champions yesterday at Three Rivers Stadium.

After winning three of four preseason games and beating the Raiders last week, the Ravens discovered where they really stand in the NFL's order.

They stand a long way from top teams such as the Steelers.

That isn't really surprising -- the Browns had lost their last six games to the Steelers -- but the Ravens were almost beginning to believe in the fantasy.

"This was certainly a wake-up call," defensive end Rob Burnett said, "and maybe we needed it."

They certainly won't believe in any fantasies anymore, not after the Steelers shredded their supposedly strong defense for 26 first downs.

And not after quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the opening day hero, reverted to form and contributed several critical turnovers.

Hello, reality.

"The better team won," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said.

And the better team was better by a lot.

It didn't matter that the Steelers were decimated by injuries and down to Mike Tomczak at quarterback.

They still had better players at many positions, including quarterback.

They blocked better, tackled better and used their heads better than the Ravens.

Even when the Steelers all but announced they were going to run early in the game, the Ravens were powerless to stop them.

"I hadn't seen holes like that since Notre Dame," said the Steelers' Jerome Bettis, who rushed for 116 yards. "I couldn't believe how our guys blew them off the ball."

The Ravens' secondary was beaten as badly, and the surprise was that cornerback Issac Booth wasn't the problem. Cornerback Antonio Langham and safety Stevon Moore had long days.

Tomczak missed only one of his first 16 pass attempts.

Testaverde actually matched Tomczak early with two long touchdown drives. Leroy Hoard and Earnest Byner were running through holes, Testaverde was throwing sharply and the score was tied at 14 midway through the second quarter.

It was a Testaverde-Tomczak shootout, pro football at its best!

But then Testaverde fumbled while scrambling and the Steelers recovered at the Ravens' 43, setting up a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 14-point lead late in the second quarter.

Add that turnover to Testaverde's disastrous first pass, a sideline route to Michael Jackson that Rod Woodson intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and the quarterback was responsible for two Steelers touchdowns.

On the road, against the defending conference champs, that was the ballgame.

Testaverde then seemed to unravel as he struggled to run the no-huddle offense through the third quarter and most of the fourth.

The no-huddle, which beat the Raiders, was a no-no this time.

Hello, reality.

Testaverde did lead a late drive that reached the Steelers' 2, but Earnest Hunter fumbled and garbage time was under way with five minutes left.

"We obviously have to play better than that to win games," Marchibroda said. "But when you're young, sometimes you have to experience that to see what it takes in the NFL."

It's erroneous to suggest that the Ravens are young; other than Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden, most of the starters have been in the league at least three or four years.

Youth wasn't the difference yesterday.

Quality was the difference.

Basically, the Steelers exposed the Ravens for what they are: a team in the NFL's broad midsection, a team that is going to experience highs and lows, good wins at home and bad losses on the road.

XTC

A team from which not too much should be expected coming off a 5-11 season in Cleveland.

Granted, just as it was wrong to get too high from beating the Raiders, it would be wrong to get too low from this loss. There was no disgrace and little surprise in losing to the Steelers in their home opener, particularly after Jacksonville upset them on opening day.

The Ravens aren't the last team that will get blown away in Three Rivers Stadium this season.

"If that was their best shot, I think we can take them next time," Ravens receiver Michael Jackson said.

Easy there, guy.

That was Mike Tomczak shredding the Ravens' defense, hardly a portent of good things to come.

And that was "the old Testaverde" making the mistakes to lose the game.

"We can regroup and come back strong next week in Houston," Burnett said.

Maybe they can. But either way, their fantasy is over.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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