No more trouble in Three Rivers city

September 04, 2000|By John Eisenberg

PITTSBURGH - For such a smart guy, Brian Billick was surprisingly clueless for once.

"I haven't lost here. I hope they never shut the place down," the Ravens' head coach said with a smile yesterday after his team beat the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium for the second straight year.

He'd better not try that idea out on his boss, Ravens owner Art Modell, whose vision of the abyss probably includes Pittsburgh's famously intimidating football stadium, set to close and suffer the wrecking ball after this season.

Modell took Cleveland/Baltimore teams into Three Rivers for 30 years starting in 1971. He didn't win until 1986. Yesterday's win was just his fifth in three decades.

"I've got a lot of bad, bad memories here," said Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett, who joined the franchise in Cleveland in 1990. "I didn't win a game here for nine years."

The Ravens had lost three in a row, including poundings of 37-0 and 31-14, before surprising the Steelers late last season. Yesterday, they won with ease.

Figures, huh? Just when Three Rivers is giving way to a new, state-of-the-art stadium next door, the Ravens figure out the place.

Actually, they had some help. The Steelers are falling apart, having now lost 16 of 22 games going back to the second half of the 1998 season, after dominating the AFC Central for years. Yesterday's shutout loss was their first at home since 1989.

Having a career .721 winning percentage at Three Rivers didn't help the Steelers one bit yesterday against the Ravens' swarming defense, which limited Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis to eight rushing yards on nine carries and completely dominated the game.

"Obviously, they have issues," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said, referring to the ongoing controversy over whether Steelers coach Bill Cowher should play Kordell Stewart or Kent Graham at quarterback. "They're over there talking about who should be playing and who shouldn't and stuff like that. It's hard to win in that situation.

"When they get those issues settled, they could be a good team. But we won today because we're better. Just plain and simple. We didn't do anything fancy today. We just ran the ball and played defense. Nothing great. But we're just better, so we won."

Even Steelers fans wouldn't dispute that after yesterday. They're knowledgeable fans who recognize good football when they see it, and they weren't fooled by the boilerplate optimism they heard from the franchise before yesterday's opener. Thousands of seats were empty on a warm, sunny afternoon. Graham, who struggled badly at quarterback, was hearing boos before the end of the first quarter.

The stands emptied quickly after the Ravens' defense staged a goal-line stand to preserve the shutout early in the fourth quarter, and there was silence as the game ended with the exception of a small, hearty band of Baltimore fans whooping and hollering in one end zone - without challenge from Steeler fans ceding their home turf.

It was quite a sight for anyone accustomed to coming to Three Rivers and watching the fans wave their towels and shake the stands with noise.

"Having come here for so long and knowing how tough and intimidating it usually is and how much the fans love their Steelers, I couldn't believe the boos so early in the game," said Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who joined the franchise in 1991 and didn't win in Pittsburgh until last year. "But they know."

Yes. They know.

There was a good-natured split in the Ravens' locker room after the win, as the older players with Three Rivers nightmares clashed with those who weren't around for all the losses.

"This isn't even a rivalry," said Sharpe, who joined the Ravens this year after a decade in Denver.

"Not even a rivalry?" crowed Burnett, a career Brown/Raven. "Man, I poured my heart out on this field for years. Took a lot of leads into the fourth quarter and gave them up. Walked off the field and heard the fans getting on me. Sat in this locker room as a loser.

"We played Pittsburgh in a playoff game here in 1994, and [Steeler runners] Barry Foster and Bam Morris just ran and ran and ran on us. Ran all day. They ran so far, they're probably still running today"`

Pause. A smile crossed Burnett's sweaty face.

"Having gone through all that, it feels really sweet right now just to sit here and enjoy the fact that we shut them out," Burnett said.

It's like spraying double-bogeys all over a golf course for 17 holes, then hitting a perfect drive and two-putting for a par on No. 18.

A perfect finish to a horrible experience.

Years and years and years of losing at Three Rivers, and then out of nowhere, just as the place closes, two wins in a row.

"Pittsburgh is Ravens Country," read the sign a Baltimore fan held up over the tunnels at the end of the game.

Incredibly, no one could argue.

"Hey, if they want to save the money and not finish the other stadium over there," said Billick, still smiling, "I'll kick in a few bucks for that."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

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