Will Ravens be iron tough in Steel City?

Team pits run defense vs. Steelers' Bettis


November 04, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH - The Ravens venture into the Steel City today for a test of their championship mettle.

At a time when the Ravens usually dig in for a dominant run, the defending Super Bowl champions butt helmets with the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field with the intention of revising the balance of power in the AFC Central and settling a weeklong running debate.

That brewing argument centers on which of the NFL's most dominant forces - the Ravens' immovable run defense or the Steelers' unstoppable ground attack - will prevail, with pride on the line and division control at stake.

A win for the Steelers (5-1) would provide a three-game cushion over the Ravens in the loss column and solidify them as the team to beat in the division.

A victory for the third-place Ravens (4-3) would cut their AFC Central deficit to a half game and set the tone for another late-season charge. The Ravens are an NFL-best 13-2 in November and December since 1999, when Brian Billick took over as coach.

"It's a statement game, period," Ravens outside linebacker Jamie Sharper said. "The only way for us to win the division is to beat Pittsburgh."

But the Steelers still believe the road through the AFC Central goes through the Ravens.

"In order to be the champs, you have to beat the champs," Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said. "Until they're dethroned, you've got to beat them. That's the bottom line in this business. You can't expect to be a champ ducking the guys. You have to face them head-on, and this is going to be the biggest challenge of the year."

The Ravens head into this grudge match at less than full strength.

Quarterback Elvis Grbac (bruised ribs) and running back Terry Allen (sprained left ankle) are questionable, and the Ravens are virtually set to start their backups, quarterback Randall Cunningham and running back Jason Brookins.

Grbac, who still has soreness on the left side of his rib cage near his sternum, is expected to rest another week and return to his starter's role next Monday night at Tennessee against the Titans. The move was made easier after last Sunday, when Cunningham engineered two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in rallying the Ravens from 11 points down against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I think it was a steppingstone as far as them knowing me as a player," the 38-year-old Cunningham said of his 81st career NFL victory. "A lot of people think when you get a older, you start losing it."

Injuries have contributed to what has become another October swoon.

The Ravens fell to .500 after getting hammered at Green Bay and Cleveland before eking out a win last Sunday over Jacksonville. But the Ravens refuse to panic for no other reason than recent history.

After last year's October tumble left them with a 5-4 record, the Ravens closed the regular season with seven straight wins and dominated the playoffs. In total, the Ravens have won 11 straight in November and December, with their last loss coming against the Jaguars on Nov. 28, 1999.

"We've been through this before," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "This is a football team that truly knows we play our best football in November and December. This team is hungry just to get to that part of the season."

The Ravens are also determined to prove a point.

In what has been billed as one of the season's biggest showdowns, the Ravens' defense is challenging the Steelers to run the ball.

The Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 44 games and are holding teams to 65.7 yards rushing a game. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is producing 186.8 yards on the ground a game, with Bettis averaging 102 yards.

"I would hope they would run him," Lewis said. "I think we get up for those kind of games."

While Lewis doesn't think any running back can gain 100 yards against the Ravens, the Steelers aren't shy about proving him wrong.

"He's got the right to say that, just like we have the right to say we will rush for 100 yards," Steelers guard Alan Faneca told Pittsburgh reporters. "That's their mentality. That's our mentality."

The exchange of words was jump-started earlier in the week by Brookins. A day after making his first NFL start, Brookins questioned the toughness of the Steelers' defense, saying, "I have never played against them, so I don't know if they're physical or not. I'm going to go home to watch Monday Night Football to catch a couple of leaks and a couple of holes and see what I can do to get those guys rattled up there in Pittsburgh."

Steelers strong safety Lee Flowers offered some advice to Brookins.

"Please do study," Flowers said. "Because if not, it's going to be a painful game."

The challenges have been set, and the ramifications have been established.

"We're getting to the point in the season where there's a little more clarity as to the urgency of the game," Billick said. "This is the division leader. This is a team as I look at their schedule, I'm not sure who's going to beat them. So, it's our job to go in and beat them if we have any chance of closing that gap with the division leader. We've got two shots at it, and we're going to give it our best shot."

Ravens today

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Site: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

Time: 1 p.m.

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

Line: Steelers by 2

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