Gash leads run revival of Ravens

Fullback's crisp blocks help champs rebuild from the ground up

`He creates hole by himself'

Last 2 rushing games of 212, 226 yards steel hopes for Pittsburgh

Ravens - Steelers

Afc Divisional Playoff

January 16, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

See Sam.

See Sam level a linebacker.

See Sam's side pile up rushing yards.

Just as some reading specialists call for a return to phonics, the Ravens' offense has gone back to basics. More running plays has meant more work for fullback Sam Gash, a 10-year veteran who relishes his role as the lead blocker in Baltimore's defense of its Super Bowl championship.

Gash carries a low profile and lower personal statistics, but team success is another matter. He has the measly total of 1 yard on four carries over the past three seasons, but in this era of parity how many others - Shannon Sharpe included - have made the NFL playoffs six straight years?

"Sam is probably the best blocking fullback in the league," running back Terry Allen said. "Once he gets going, he's going to create a hole by himself. You know you can always follow him and get a little something. You read his block, pick up on the other guys and go from there. He's one guy you can always count on. He's not going to lose his battle."

For the first time since September 1994, Allen has put up back-to- back 100-yard games. The Ravens racked up a season-high 212 yards rushing in the finale against Minnesota and 226 in their wild-card win at Miami, where Gash got a game ball.

In must-win situations, the Ravens toned down their passing game and hit the ground running, an approach they figure to take again in Sunday's AFC Divisional playoff at Pittsburgh. The Steelers invaded PSINet Stadium and pummeled the Ravens one month ago today. Is it a coincidence that Gash made only a cameo appearance that night?

When Baltimore overpowered the Dolphins with a 90-yard drive, 12 of the 17 plays were runs. In that last meeting with Pittsburgh, the Ravens spread the field and had just 13 rushing plays, the fewest in franchise history.

The Ravens' offense forged a physical identity in November 2000, after Obafemi Ayanbadejo went out with turf toe and Gash came in to escort Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes. Baltimore got 250 yards on the ground against Dallas and 247 a week later against Cleveland, as it gathered the momentum that would result in 11 straight victories.

Gash signed a three-year contract in the off-season, but quarterback Trent Dilfer was let go, Elvis Grbac came to town and the Ravens' offense tried a different tack.

Gash was involved enough in the season opener to get the first touchdown against Chicago on a short pass, but Baltimore ran the ball just 20 times in its next game, a perplexing loss at Cincinnati.

In addition to the last meeting with the Steelers, the Ravens also lacked a commitment to the run in two losses to Cleveland and in their last setback, at Tampa Bay. With Allen and Jason Brookins back from injuries, however, the Ravens finished with a season-high 42 carries against the Vikings. The 50 against the Dolphins was the second-most in franchise history.

"I always get antsy when I'm not in there, but I don't get mad because there's always a means to an end," said Gash, who was asked if he questioned his status in Baltimore when its play-calling favored the pass. "I don't worry about the future, all I worry about is my contribution. Being a fullback, I love it if we're running the ball 50 plays. Whenever that happens, it's a treat."

Gash's career has been marked by patience.

New England's eighth-round pick out of Penn State in 1992, Gash saw his development slowed by injuries. He didn't appear in all 16 of the Patriots' games until 1997, then went to Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent. Gash had two Pro Bowl seasons with the Bills, but salary-cap issues turned him loose until August 2000, when the Ravens needed a replacement for injured starter Charles Evans.

Against the Dolphins, 13 different Ravens had rushes or receptions. Gash's came on a fourth-quarter flare pass that went for 13 yards, but his calling card is contact, not touches. Allen and company are piling up big yardage cutting back against pursuit, residue from Gash's reputation.

"I don't know if it's necessarily being the enforcer, but I enjoy getting a running start and hitting people," Gash said. "If I have an assignment, whether it's a linebacker or safety, sometimes they'll say, `Sam's going this way, so the ball must be going this way.' If people follow me, the guy with the ball can cut back."

Even with the one-dimensional Gash in the game, defenses are finding it difficult to read the Ravens.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers in AFC divisional playoff game

Site: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Steelers by 5

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