Floundering at Three Rivers Browns, now Ravens have an unhappy history against host Steelers

November 05, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Ravens wide receiver Derrick Alexander can't explain the hex surrounding Three Rivers Stadium. Neither can defensive tackle James Jones, and fellow tackle Tony Siragusa dismisses the notion of any such spell.

This much seems clear. After losing four of their last five games to negate a 3-1 start and fall two games behind Pittsburgh and Jacksonville in the AFC Central, the Ravens (4-5) are faced with a daunting proposition this week:

Beat the first-place Steelers at a stadium that has cursed this team since the house was built.

Let us count the ways the franchise has drowned at Three Rivers since its opening in 1970. Consider that the Cleveland Browns did not win for the first time in Pittsburgh until 1986. The Browns won the next three meetings, but since a season-opening, 51-0 rout in 1989, team owner Art Modell's group has failed in Pittsburgh.

Even the Browns' traumatic move to Baltimore failed to alter the trend.

In week two of last year, on the game's first series, Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw an interception that then-cornerback Rod Woodson returned for a touchdown. And with about five minutes left, the Ravens drove to the Pittsburgh 2 with a chance to pull within seven points, only to see then-running back Earnest Hunter fumble their chances away after getting hit by linebacker Levon Kirkland. The Ravens lost, 31-17.

"I don't know what's so hard about [winning at Three Rivers]," said Alexander, who knows about misery in Pittsburgh. His otherwise fine rookie season ended with a 29-9 playoff loss at Three Rivers in December 1994, when he dropped two passes early, then dropped a second-half touchdown pass in the end zone.

"It seems like [the Steelers] always come up with a big play to win the game," Alexander added. "Every year I've been up there, something like that happens."

"I don't think it's Three Rivers," Jones said. "It's the fact that when we play this team up there, they find a way to win the game."

The franchise's futility in Pittsburgh has produced moments ranging from comedic to gut-wrenching. Like the stretch from 1978-80 in which Cleveland lost back-to-back games in overtime, then dropped a 16-13 decision on Nov. 16, 1980, when Lynn Swann caught a touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw with 11 && seconds left.

Three years later, after the team listened to a loud version of the song "Eye of the Tiger" at its hotel, it took a bus to Three Rivers and watched quarterback Brian Sipe throw three first-quarter interceptions. The Browns drowned again, 44-17.

Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said the Browns stooped to deep, superstitious levels in an effort to reverse their misfortunes.

"We stayed at four different hotels over four years. At one point, Art [Modell] called the chamber of commerce and asked if they would build a new one," Byrne said. "We took buses there instead of flying. We even talked about flying to Cincinnati and taking a riverboat up the Ohio River.

"It's like you expect the tipped pass to go the wrong way, or a fumble to bounce the wrong way. It has definitely been our house of horrors."

"I don't pay any attention to that stuff," countered Siragusa, who's in his first year with the team. "It's just coincidental."

The Ravens prefer to look at the technical truth. They are only 0-1 at Three Rivers. They would also prefer to remember the opening half of their first meeting with the Steelers last month at Memorial Stadium. The Ravens intercepted quarterback Kordell Stewart three times while taking an early, 21-0 lead. They watched the lead dissolve during a nightmarish second half as the Steelers came back to claim a 42-34 victory.

The Ravens are still trying to find a winning rhythm and position themselves for a serious run at a playoff berth. Over the last two weeks, they have discovered their running game and played some of their better defense, surrendering only 36 points in that stretch.

Running back Bam Morris has gained 306 yards on 67 carries in his last two games. Guard Jeff Blackshear thinks running successfully against Pittsburgh's No. 2-ranked run defense is the key to eliminating the Three Rivers problem.

"The best way to quiet down any stadium is to come in and mash [the home team] with a good running game," Blackshear said.

Any kind of winning method would help Alexander erase his bad memories of the place. Besides, he says the Ravens simply must win, if they intend to think about the postseason.

"A win would erase a lot of things," said Alexander. "It's a big confidence game. We're 4-5, and if we have any hopes or dreams about playing football past December, we have to win this week. We need this game badly."

NOTE: The team has decided not to pursue tampering charges against New York Jets assistant coach Bill Belichick, who called Ravens offensive linemen Wally Williams and Orlando Brown last week before Sunday's game. Belichick was coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to 1995.

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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