Under fire, `Goose' must weigh in today

November 04, 2001|By MIKE PRESTON

PITTSBURGH - When your face is plastered across national and local television screens, when you fly in and out of the training facility in helicopters, when your weight balloons and you miss most of the past two training camps, you become a big target.

And when you weigh close to 350 pounds, it's bigger yet.

The entire Ravens defense has not played up to the level of last season, but there is a bull's-eye on the back of defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, 34. Ready, aim, fire. The criticism has been going around for weeks.

Goose is too big. Knee injuries have slowed him down. He is in the game for the money. His verbal outbursts and celebrity status are distracting.

Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis says all those assertions are wrong.

If that is, indeed, the case, the Ravens' game today against the AFC Central-leading Pittsburgh Steelers will be a true barometer. The Steelers bring the NFL's top rushing offense and monster back Jerome Bettis to Heinz Field, and Siragusa's forte is stopping the run.

He has to show up.

"Hopefully, he has a big game," Lewis said of Siragusa, who has had several knee operations in his 12 seasons in the league. "Last year when we played them for the first time, it was his first game of the season basically, and he didn't play as well as he could. He was injured the second time we played them. But this is the kind of game he loves to play in. He'll have a lot of friends there."

"Overall, I would say he has played well," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "You have to consider that teams are spreading us out more and throwing more passes. Goose is not a part of the sub defenses."

The Ravens will see some three- and four-receiver sets today, as they did against Green Bay, Cleveland and Jacksonville, and Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher will have his usual three or four trick plays prepared in certain situations. But the Steelers are still basically a no-thrills bunch. They want to beat you with an overdose of Bettis, who is in absolutely great shape.

But even more impressive is the offensive line. Watch guard Alan Faneca and center Jeff Hartings. Look how well they pull and seal off the corners on toss plays. Check out their technique on traps. Need some muscle? Faneca and Hartings have been blowing defensive tackles away on double teams.

Next up is Siragusa. His main job is to get a piece of either the guards and the center and keep them off middle linebacker Ray Lewis. The Ravens haven't done that well, and they also need to work on their pursuit. Opposing teams are keeping them engaged in blocks way too long or chopping them off their feet on running and short-passing plays.

The Ravens' strength has always been athleticism and speed on defense, but great players can't make great plays lying on the ground. If Siragusa controls the middle, it allows teammates to work freely. Though he has only 24 tackles in seven games, Siragusa is playing and moving well, Lewis says, as well as last season when he performed at a near Pro Bowl level.

"I comment to Brian [Billick, coach] every Monday how impressed I am with him," Lewis said. "Obviously, he is not in there as a pass rusher very often, but when he is, we like some of the things he does. He's able to push the pocket and cause a problem in there. They're not going to be able to single-block him, so there are some good things that he brings to the table when he's been in there."

The relative lack of playing time could help Siragusa later in the season. His knees have been sore, but he doesn't miss practice. If the Ravens make the playoffs, teams are going to have to eventually run the ball because of winter weather, unless they play in a dome stadium or on the West Coast.

"I don't know if he's frustrated, but at some point everything evens out," Lewis said. "It will keep him fresher. Eventually, things will change, they will even out. Actually, we're a little bit further along with him this year than we were last year. Siragusa being able to practice will pay off on Sundays."

That's when Siragusa has been at his best. He's a gamer. It's the rest of the week that's been a problem. He can be loud, obnoxious, selfish and offensive. If you can close your eyes for about a minute and pretend he isn't there, most of the time he goes away.

But Lewis says that has changed a little. Siragusa is more of a complete team player. He says it with a straight face, too.

"I think his focus has gotten better," Lewis said. "On Saturdays and Sundays, you can't ask for a more focused guy. He's worked not to be a distraction Wednesday through Friday. But we have personalities on this team and Brian wants that, as long as it's not taking away from our guys learning and getting better. It's not a problem."

"I think he's gotten better as a player," Lewis said. "I think when he came here he thought he had an understanding on how to play. But he had to learn how to play together within the team structure, and he's done an outstanding job with that. Before that, he didn't understand the ramifications for everybody. All he knew was working in his own little piece of the world."

It's back to a small chunk of real estate today. There can be no excuses about injuries, spread offenses or anything else. The Steelers will come right at the Ravens, and we'll find out if the negative assertions are true, or if Siragusa is still one of the best run stoppers in the NFL.

He has to show up.

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