Ravens to meet Bettis head-on

Top run defense gears up for meeting with Steelers' `Bus'

November 01, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The race for the AFC Central title figures to turn into a demolition derby on Sunday.

As the regular season reaches its midway point, the third-place Ravens (4-3) are looking to chase down the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1), raising the stakes in their usual collision course with "The Bus."

The Steelers have rolled out to a surprising 1 1/2 -game lead over the Ravens largely behind the resurgent power running of Jerome "The Bus" Bettis and the NFL's most dominant rushing attack.

The Ravens like their chances of closing that gap, countering with the league's top-ranked run defense that has refused to budge and has owned Bettis over the past three seasons.

By the players' estimation, this Sunday's pivotal divisional showdown will be settled by the success - or failure - of the Ravens' run defense.

"It's a smash-mouth game," defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "They think they can run the ball and we think we can stop it. I think whoever goes and wins that war right there is going to win the game."

Statistics draw the battle lines in this clash of willpower.

While Bettis has averaged 102 yards rushing this season, the Ravens haven't allowed a running back to gain more than 77 yards.

While Bettis is gaining 5.5 yards per carry, the Ravens have shut down teams to 2.9 yards per attempt.

So, does Bettis think he can break 100 yards against the Ravens?

"We'll see," said Bettis, who has surpassed 100 yards in four of his past five games. "That's why we play the game."

The Ravens just shake their heads. They haven't permitted a 100-yard rusher in 44 games, keeping Bettis in check four times during the streak.

"We really just don't believe in our hearts - deep in our hearts - that a back can come out and rush 25 or 30 times and just pound us and get 100 yards," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "If they come out and try to establish him [Bettis] with the run, that's something we don't believe in. So, it's going to be one of those slug matches and I think both sides of the ball know that."

Bettis, the NFL's leading rusher since 1996, has appeared rather ordinary when going against the Ravens.

In the past three seasons, the Ravens have limited Bettis to 39.8 yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry. His biggest run over that span has been 14 yards.

Even Bettis' most successful game in recent memory against the Ravens comes with an asterisk. When he produced 65 yards in last year's 9-6 win over the Ravens, he did so against a Ravens defense that was missing an injured Siragusa and started ailing defensive tackle Sam Adams.

By playing Pittsburgh twice a year, the Ravens defense instinctively understands how the Steelers attack.

"They've got a great philosophy in terms of the way they stop the run," Bettis said. "They don't do it with a lot of bells and whistles. They do it the old-fashioned way. They line up, they knock you in the mouth and they make you not want to run the ball."

But Bettis is running with more authority this season, carrying an offense that acknowledges the shortcomings of quarterback Kordell Stewart and the AFC's worst-ranked pass attack.

With the nagging knee problems cleared up, the 5-foot-11, 255-pound veteran has more pop to his game. By signing a six-year, $30 million contract this off-season, he has showed a renewed sense of purpose.

In the Steelers' five-game winning streak, Bettis has rushed for 584 yards, which is a third of Pittsburgh's total offense. Over that time, he has been able to turn the corner and plow over tacklers, making a run of at least 30 yards in four of those games.

A straight-line runner, Bettis forces defenses to match his power.

"He's somewhat a freak," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "To have the feet that he has and to be such a big man is very special."

Bettis' success this season is a product of the Steelers' blocking - which allowed Bettis to walk into the end zone on touchdown runs of 1 and 7 yards last Monday against Tennessee - as well as a reflection on new center Jeff Hartings.

Replacing a possible Hall of Famer in Dermontti Dawson, Hartings was signed as a free agent from Detroit, where he had played his entire five-year career there as a guard. While Dawson battled injuries during the latter part of his career, Hartings has provided stability.

"I think he's been huge," Marvin Lewis said. "They had to play the last couple of years without Dermontti and now adding a guy like Hartings has given them new life there."

For the Ravens, the challenge is clear.

To stop the surging Steelers, they must stop "The Bus."

"Our defense - as their offense - both understand very clearly what this game is about for them," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "There's no mistaking it and both know what they got to do."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Site: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Steelers by 2

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