Hunter drops ball in defeat Reserve halfback's goal-line fumble dashes final hopes

Nfl Week 2

Steelers 31, Ravens 17

September 09, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- Beginning with coach Ted Marchibroda, the Ravens said yesterday's 31-17 drubbing by the Pittsburgh Steelers did not come down to one play -- namely a fumble that running back Earnest Hunter lost on Pittsburgh's goal line with 5: 09 left and the Ravens trailing by two touchdowns.

Yet, on a day when the Ravens made enough mistakes to put themselves in a deep hole, Hunter's miscue doused any hopes of a dramatic comeback.

It happened at the end of the Ravens' first solid drive of the second half, one that began on the Ravens' 26 with 9: 50 left. Up to that point, their offense was lifeless, having managed one second-half first down, that via penalty.

Suddenly, the Ravens awakened, particularly running back Leroy Hoard. He had replaced Earnest Byner after Byner's injured toe forced him out early in the second half. Hoard set the tone of the drive with a 6-yard run off right tackle, then kept it going with three runs for first downs, including a 10-yard burst up the middle, giving the Ravens a first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 2.

While getting tackled on that play, though, Hoard lost his shoe and came out of the game, electing not to risk a delay-of-game penalty. Onto the field trotted Hunter, a second-year back who had yet to run a play from scrimmage yesterday and had yet to carry the ball this season.

Hunter took a handoff from quarterback Vinny Testaverde at the 5, started left, cut back to the middle and leaped for the end zone. On his way up, however, Pittsburgh linebacker Levon Kirkland hit Hunter, knocking the ball loose. The Steelers recovered, their 31-17 lead intact and their victory pretty much secured.

Said Kirkland: "My job on that defense is to find the ball carrier and make something happen. I just popped him and he gave it up."

Hunter was too upset to review the play. "I got no comment about nothing. I'm not in the mood right now."

Hoard came to Hunter's defense.

"In fairness to Earnest, he hasn't been playing," Hoard said. "There are certain things you see during the course of the game and expect as the game goes on. He wasn't out there to see them. There's not much you can say to him. Just let it go, don't worry about it.

"It's a long season. If he had scored, I would say the same thing to him. That's not where we lost. It's ludicrous to think that we lost on one play."

Fumbling is a problem that has haunted Hunter throughout his short career. His sloppy ball-handling got him benched for the last three games of his rookie season in Cleveland. Hunter said the problem was behind him, and he backed it up throughout training camp and the preseason, when he protected the ball flawlessly.

Lately, though, his fingers have gotten slippery again. In the season opener against Oakland, Hunter fumbled away a kickoff. Then came yesterday's mistake.

Marchibroda defended his decision to run with Hunter instead of fullback Carwell Gardner or anyone else. "I don't know what other choices I had other than throwing the football," said Marchibroda. "That's what every player is there [on the bench] for.

"Earnest is young. He has a lot of ability. But he has to learn what the NFL is all about. Earnest is no different than a second-team quarterback. He's got to be ready when the time comes."

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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