Road warriors

Ravens eye Steelers with look of a champ Ravens eye Steelers with look of a champ

Ravens Extra

January 14, 2002|By Mike Preston

MIAMI -- The playoff picture becomes spicy now for the Ravens.

After pounding the Miami Dolphins, 20-3, yesterday in the opening round of the AFC playoffs, there were numerous questions circulating about the Ravens. Are they for real? Do they have their swagger back? Has an offensive identity finally been established? Are the defending champions back to the form that won them a championship last season?

The answers are one resounding no, not just by my standards, but by the Ravens' themselves. They are in no way satisfied with yesterday's dominance of the Dolphins, not with the Pittsburgh Steelers staring them in the face Sunday in the conference semifinals at Heinz Field.

It will be the rubber match between the two AFC Central foes, but one factor has already been established: In both games, the Steelers physically handled the Ravens and left no doubt about their superiority in that department.

"That was a very good playoff win on the road," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of the victory over the Dolphins. "In fact, when one out of only four road teams won this weekend, it tells you how difficult it is to do. The Dolphins are a team that is very good at home, and a team that performs well in the fourth quarter. We can be pleased with our effort, but we've got a long ways to go against some pretty good football teams."

As you left Pro Player Stadium last night, you had to wonder if the Ravens had found their niche again, and how in the world the Dolphins won 11 regular-season games.

For the second straight week, the Ravens pushed around another team with their running game as they rushed for 226 yards against Miami's No. 17-ranked rushing defense. Halfback Terry Allen had 109 yards, and No. 2 running back Jason Brookins had 65.

The Ravens "Dilfer-ized" their offense again, which means that Elvis Grbac is still on throwing probation. Give him some rope, but not enough to hang the team. The Ravens had touchdown drives of 90 and 99 yards, and then mixed in passes from Grbac, who completed 12 of 18 for 133 yards, including one of 45 yards to Travis Taylor, and then a 4-yard touchdown pass to Taylor in the third quarter.

It was like having running back Jamal Lewis back in the lineup, but will that profile work against Pittsburgh?

Miami was in a 4-3 alignment yesterday, and gambled it could take on the Ravens' offensive line. The Dolphins lost.

Pittsburgh also does a lot of gambling, but it uses a 3-4. The Steelers stunt and move around a lot, a tactic that has given the Ravens fits. Pittsburgh has had success with its matchup of Jason Gildon against Ravens right offensive tackle Kipp Vickers, and Grbac hasn't handled pressure well this season. Pittsburgh also has the No. 1 defense in the league, including No. 1 against the run.

The Ravens will have to alter their profile. Grbac will have to make plays.

"Pittsburgh uses multiple blitzes and twists," said Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. "Hopefully, we'll go up there and get it done this time. We've won up there before. Hopefully, we'll do it again."

Billick said: "You can't play them and be one-dimensional. We're going to need more balance."

Offensively, the Steelers will give the Ravens many more problems than the Dolphins. The Ravens held Miami to 46 yards rushing, and quarterback Jay Fiedler completed only 15 of 28 passes for 122 yards. Fiedler seldom challenged the Ravens' cornerbacks downfield partly because Miami had to go to maximum pass protection keeping in tight ends and running backs, but also because receivers Dedric Ward and James McKnight don't scare anybody.

The Dolphins were basically a team with no offensive weapons led by a ho-hum quarterback whom the Ravens swallowed up.

But that will change in Pittsburgh. They have receivers Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward. Running back Jerome Bettis should be completely healthy, but No. 2 runner Amos Zereoue is a better fit against the Ravens because of his cutback style. Pittsburgh might have the best offensive line in the league, and a versatile quarterback in Kordell Stewart.

"It will be time to turn it up, there will be no holds barred," said Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams. "We're going to go there with our hard hats and lunch pails. If we eliminate the big plays, we have a good chance to win the football game."

The Ravens have no fear of the Steelers, and they shouldn't. Twice in the past two years, they have beaten Pittsburgh on its home turf. It might be the Ravens' second straight playoff game on the road, but this team is accustomed to taking its traveling show anywhere, and winning.

Of all the teams in the playoffs, the Ravens are the one team the Steelers didn't want to play even though they have had an extra week of rest because of the bye.

After yesterday, the Ravens should start feeling good about themselves again. They played this way against the Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans earlier this season.

"People talk about the defense not being as good as last year," Adams said. "Last year, we won the world championship. In order for us to be as good as last year, we've got to win it again. We played a solid football game today, Ravens football, a style that is physical, clock turning. We put the ball on the ground, punch it down your throats. We played aggressive defense, and were efficient on offense.

"I'm not saying we're back. We'll know at the end of the season when we sit down, collect our thoughts and see what has happened."

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