Testaverde is ill, but likely to get start At 4-5, Ravens face make-or-break game

November 09, 1997|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Vinny Testaverde missed the Ravens' walk-through practice yesterday morning at Owings Mills, his second straight absence because of flu-like symptoms, but still is expected to start tonight's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He took the team flight to Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon but not before he was twice given IV fluids by team doctors, Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said.

Testaverde, who will benefit from the team's playing its first night game of the season, attended a team meeting in the earlier part of yesterday evening and was feeling better last night, Byrne said.

The coaching staff speculated that Testaverde probably will start but be observed closely by coach Ted Marchibroda before and during the early part of the game, one that the Ravens need to win if they want to become a serious contender to reach the playoffs.

The Ravens (4-5) must make a strong November run with a schedule that also includes home games with the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals and a trip to Jacksonville. The Steelers (6-3), tied for first place in the AFC Central with the Jaguars, lead the Ravens by two games.

"This team is in a state of emergency," said Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary. "We dug a hole, and we just keep digging deeper. If we dig anymore, then we'll be in there for the rest of the season."

Testaverde's illness isn't the Ravens' only question mark on offense.

Wide receiver Michael Jackson, who has 41 receptions for 565 yards, is questionable because of a ruptured right biceps. Starting slot receiver Jermaine Lewis is questionable with an ankle sprain.

That may force the Ravens to start two unproven receivers: Ryan Yarborough, who has 10 catches for 102 yards this season, and second-year player James Roe, who doesn't have a reception.

When asked what would happen without Jackson and Lewis in his offense, Marchibroda said: "Wooo. I think Jermaine will be all right, though."

The Ravens will try to run at a Pittsburgh defense that is ranked second against the rush but 28th against the pass. If the Ravens can start out running and balance the offense, then Pittsburgh could be in trouble.

"We're playing against a very explosive team," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "During the last two weeks, they have gotten their running game together, and it's a concern for us."

But if the Steelers stop the run, the Ravens' hopes would ride with Testaverde -- or his backup, third-year pro Eric Zeier, who got a lot of playing time in the preseason but has yet to throw a regular-season pass in 1997.

Zeier's last regular-season action came against the San Francisco 49ers in the 11th game last season. In three years with the club, Zeier has completed 92 of 182 passes for 961 yards with five touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

"We'll keep a close eye on Vinny and we'll make a decision before game time if he'll start or not, and also how much he might be able to play," said Marchibroda, whose team has the No. 1 passing offense in the league, averaging 259.4 yards.

In the teams' last meeting, five weeks ago, the Ravens took a 21-0 lead in the first half, only to suffer a devastating 42-34 loss. Few of the players have mentioned that game in the past week, but they haven't forgotten it.

"For the most part, we have put that away," said Ravens center Wally Williams. "In this game, you can't dwell on things too long."

Five weeks ago, the Ravens couldn't handle the Steelers' running game, led by Jerome Bettis, or the big-play ability of quarterback Kordell Stewart. Pittsburgh finished with 431 yards of total offense, as Bettis rushed for 137 and Stewart sealed the win with a 74-yard touchdown run off a fake reverse with 1: 47 remaining.

Tackle Tony Siragusa, the Ravens' key run stopper, was in for only five plays because he was recovering from an ankle injury.

"The three keys for the defense are to stop Bettis, contain Stewart and have confidence," said defensive tackle James Jones.

Marchibroda said: "They have some outstanding players on both sides of the ball. Jerome Bettis is one of the best big backs in the league, and he runs behind a line that plays very well together.

"Until somebody proves otherwise, they are the team to beat in this division. And they're especially tough at home."

The Ravens/Cleveland Browns haven't won at Three Rivers Stadium since 1989.

"I'll moonwalk out of that place if we win," said defensive end Rob Burnett. "At this this moment in my life, nothing would make me happier than winning at Three Rivers. I just want to drive out of that place on the bus with a smile on my face for one time."

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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