Ravens' 'D' needs to rate an 'A,' or team will flunk

September 04, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis keeps a picture in his office of Pittsburgh offensive tackle Justin Strzelczyk taking down Peter Boulware with a headlock.

The play might not have been legal, but the photograph captures the Ravens' futility in their last six quarters against the Steelers, six quarters in which they were outscored 72-10, six quarters in which they allowed 652 yards.

The 10 turnovers by Vinny Testaverde and Co. were largely responsible for the Ravens' collapse, but the defense's inability to stop Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart and running back Jerome Bettis was just as damaging.

"We were fortunate enough to make some plays in the first half of the game here," Lewis said, referring to the three interceptions that helped the Ravens build a 24-7 halftime lead over the Steelers on Oct. 5.

"Since then, we have not made any plays -- plays to stop drives, plays to get off the field. We have not consistently played well enough to win."

And now?

Defensive ends Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary are healthier. Outside linebackers Boulware and Jamie Sharper no longer are rookies. Former Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson should stabilize the secondary.

Indeed, the Ravens will have no excuse to panic the way they did in the second half of their game against Pittsburgh at Memorial Stadium last season.

The Steelers rallied for a 42-34 victory.

The Ravens never recovered.

"You look at the film, you're like, 'Wow, what were we doing out there?' " defensive tackle James Jones said. "Guys were getting cut out of the gaps. Guys were falling down."

Stewart completed a 63-yard pass to Yancey Thigpen to set up one touchdown, ran 74 yards for another. He also threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Thigpen in the second meeting at Three Rivers Stadium, a 37-0 Pittsburgh victory.

Three plays, 189 yards.

Why should this season be any different?

Well, the Ravens defense allowed only 19 points in the team's four preseason victories. It held opponents to an 18.8 percent third-down success rate, allowed only nine rushing first downs.

The Ravens, though, blitzed more than opponents expected. The first-team defense also faced mediocre or unproven

quarterbacks -- Erik Kramer, Glenn Foley, Bobby Hoying, Danny Kanell.

Stewart is just slightly more dangerous -- he has completed 25 of 41 passes for 377 yards and four touchdowns in his last six quarters against the Ravens. Bettis, meanwhile, has rushed 38 times for 194 yards, an average of 5.1 yards per carry.

Ouch.

McCrary said he worries more about Stewart than Bettis -- "Kordell is so unpredictable, you don't know what's going on." The loss of Thigpen should hurt the Steelers' passing game. Then again, a change in Pittsburgh's offensive coordinators makes it perhaps even more difficult for the Ravens to prepare.

Lewis said he expects the Steelers to attack the Ravens' cornerbacks, but new offensive coordinator Ray Sherman placed greater emphasis on the short passing game in the preseason. He could open that way, neutralizing the pass rush of Boulware and Sharper and enabling Stewart to build confidence.

Then there is Bettis.

He rushed for 1,665 yards last season, second only to Terrell Davis in the AFC. Difficult as it might be to imagine, he figures to play an even greater role this season.

Former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey rarely used Bettis inside the opponents' 20, and shunned him on two second-down plays in the AFC title game that resulted in Stewart's throwing interceptions into the end zone.

Thigpen, now with Tennessee, attributed the 24-21 loss to Denver to "crucial, crucial turnovers and mistakes throwing into double coverage, bad reads."

Bettis, in turn, blamed Gailey, now head coach in Dallas.

"Were the reads as bad as the calls?" Bettis asked. "I don't think so. In every instance, the plays that were called were not necessary plays."

The "necessary plays," in Bettis' opinion, were runs. And the outcome of all this might be that the Steelers will ride "The Bus" DTC even more often, especially inside the red zone.

"I imagine they will," said Lewis, the Steelers' linebackers coach from 1992 to '95. "Bill [Cowher] has always been kind of a players' coach that way. If they feel like they've got the confidence to push the ball in the end zone a little more that way, I think they will."

Clearly, the Ravens need to stop Bettis and put the Steelers in third-and-long, force their offense to become more one-dimensional. That way, they can unleash Boulware, who had 11 1/2 sacks last season, but none against Pittsburgh.

"One thing they've been able to do [in the last six quarters] is kind of take him out the football game," Lewis said.

Maybe that will change Sunday. Maybe the Ravens' new, two-back offense will keep Stewart and Bettis off the field. Maybe the savvy Woodson will bait Stewart into mistakes.

Lewis said the Ravens' talent is "more on a par" with Pittsburgh's now, but that doesn't mean his team is ready to compete at this level. Beating the Steelers requires mental toughness as much as physical ability.

"They thrive on the other team making mistakes," Jones said. "They pride themselves on being able to run the ball against anybody, any defense. They're a tough, physical football team. They feel like, 'Well, they'll break before we will.' "

The Ravens certainly broke last season, as evidenced by the photograph in Lewis' office. Nothing will change until Lewis can produce an equally symbolic picture, one of a Ravens defender driving a Steeler into the ground.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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