Ravens' next test turns up volume

Loud defense aims to quiet crowd, solid Oakland offense

Strengths of both collide

R. Lewis on defense: `Our mentality matches the Oakland crowd'

Ravens Vs. Raiders

Afc Championship Game

January 11, 2001|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The setting is perfect, the timing impeccable, the matchup divine.

What better place for the Ravens' intimidating defense to achieve a Super Bowl coronation than the lion's den that passes as Network Associates Coliseum, complete with its noxious Black Hole and rebellious Oakland Raiders?

If Sunday's AFC championship game goes as planned, the wild-card Ravens will make one more statement in a season-long sermon about their passionate and unrelenting defense.

"Our mentality matches the Oakland crowd to the point that there's a lot of yelling, screaming and trash talking," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said yesterday. "We play in that. We like to call ourselves crowd pleasers. We can quiet a crowd."

It is strength on strength, power against power.

The Ravens' No. 1 rush defense against the Raiders' No. 1 rush offense.

The Ravens' No. 1 scoring defense against the Raiders' No. 3 scoring offense.

On a day when the Ravens' locker room quieted to a dull roar, coach Brian Billick issued the only warning for the second-seeded Raiders.

"I don't know if anybody has seen a defense like ours," he said. "But you know I'm biased and that will probably make somebody mad again. Until you play our defense, I don't know that you really understand just how good they are."

The Ravens have taken turns praising the Raiders. Billick has described them as the most balanced offense of the NFL's final four. Linebacker Peter Boulware said that balance makes for the best of both worlds. And defensive tackle Tony Siragusa cited Oakland's speed and strength.

"They have an Olympic relay team on the Raiders," Siragusa said. "They have a lot of speed, a lot of big guys up front. They have a lot of things you have to be concerned with."

The Raiders have world-class speed at wide receiver in James Jett, a gold medalist on the 1992 U.S. 400-meter relay team, and they have an offensive line that averages 318 pounds.

That line is what makes the running game go. The Raiders led the league with an average of 154.4 rushing yards a game this season. The Ravens allowed less than half that total, at 60.6 per game.

"They do a great job up front of tying people up," Siragusa said. "The backs don't have huge holes, they make their own hole. They sort of go in a crease and bust out of there, where they're almost hidden.

"That could cause some problems for us, especially as big as their interior line is and as big as our interior guys are. ... That's still in the back of our head: Can we shut these guys down completely? They've been running the ball really well. That's why they're in the AFC championship."

In one of the day's most physical battles, Siragusa will go against Raiders left guard Steve Wisniewski, a 12-year veteran who was named to the AFC's Pro Bowl team. Wisniewski's reputation will precede him.

"He's yuck mouth," said Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams, who played the Raiders twice a year during his six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. "His breath is terrible, man. You have to play against him with a gas mask."

Other than that ...

"Year in, year out, he's able to make the Pro Bowl, not because he's a dirty player, necessarily," Adams said to laughs. "But he's a great offensive lineman, has good technique and talent."

Running back Tyrone Wheatley gained 1,046 yards in a backfield filled with threats. Napoleon Kaufman, doubtful with a knee injury this week, gained 499 as the elusive third-down back. Randy Jordan and Terry Kirby will also take turns at tailback.

"The best thing they probably do is rotate the backs the way they do," said Billick. "They keep them fresher over the course of the year."

Said Boulware: "They've got the best of both worlds. They've got a power guy [Wheatley] who can slam it up in there for the hard yards, and they've got a guy who can also break you for the long one outside with Kaufman.

"They have the best of everything. They've got the best running game, one of the best quarterbacks, some awesome receivers who can catch the ball. On top of that, you have [Rich] Gannon, who can run the ball as good as any running quarterback we've played."

Gannon's primary targets are veteran Tim Brown (76 catches, 11 touchdowns) and Andre Rison (41 and seven). Gannon makes the passing game work with his escapability.

"He's working all the magic with his feet, scrambling around, getting out of the pocket," said cornerback Duane Starks. "It gives receivers different options to try to break open for the pass."

Gannon threw for 28 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions this season.

"Gannon is the hot quarterback this year," defensive end Rob Burnett said. "He's the guy making big plays when he needs to, not making mistakes. He's very quick back there, very athletic, and he's got good pocket sense."

Game data

Ravens (14-4) at Oakland Raiders (13-4)

Where: Network Associates Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.

When: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/ WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Raiders by 6

More inside

Marvin Lewis: Ravens defensive coordinator may be top candidate for Buffalo Bills head coach. [Page 3d]

Coming Sunday

A special section previewing the AFC championship game.

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