Putting lid on QB Stewart takes steam from Steelers

Ravens / Steelers - Afc Divisional Playoff

January 20, 2002|By Mike Preston

PITTSBURGH - On center stage in today's AFC semifinal game between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers is quarterback Kordell Stewart.

If the Ravens can control the multi-talented player's passing, running and scrambling at Heinz Field, they stand a good chance of winning. If they don't, then it will be Pittsburgh moving on to the AFC championship game.

We've heard the talk all week about running back Jerome Bettis returning to the lineup after missing the past six weeks because of groin and hip injuries, but Bettis hasn't been a major factor in a Ravens-Steelers game in three years. "The Bus" has needed a tow truck, averaging only 48 yards in his past six games against Baltimore.

The Ravens' nemesis this season has been Stewart. In two games, Stewart completed 42 of 68 passes for 569 yards and three touchdowns. The Ravens had nightmares trying to corral him.

"Someone asked me a question about Bettis after the Miami game, and I told them Bettis better be 100 percent," said outside linebacker Jamie Sharper. "I was just telling him to be ready or he could get hurt. Some of the Steelers were offended, but I don't care.

"If they didn't like it, too bad. We're not worried about Jerome Bettis, anyway. We're more concerned about Kordell. That's the guy who's been killing us and the rest of the league."

Stewart has the Ravens' ultimate respect. Ravens coach Brian Billick said he voted for him as league MVP. But Stewart still has to prove he can win a big game, and it doesn't get much bigger than today's. It's the defending Super Bowl champions against the team with the best record and home-field advantage in the AFC.

Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac is in a similar situation. He has to prove he can win big games, too. But that's where the similarities end. The Ravens have put the Trent Dilfer leash on Grbac, whose effectiveness today will be limited because of Pittsburgh's pressure and his immobility.

The Ravens will put pressure on Stewart, too. They have two favorable matchups, with defensive tackle Sam Adams against right guard Rich Tylski, and right defensive end Peter Boulware against left offensive tackle Wayne Gandy.

But unlike Grbac, Stewart can make plays from outside the pocket as well as in it. He can create time with his scrambling, allowing his receivers to get open, or he can take off down the field. The last time the Ravens played Pittsburgh, Stewart made Boulware and Sharper look like poor tacklers.

He made middle linebacker Ray Lewis look average at times.

The Ravens would like to rattle Stewart, make him panic the way he was prone to do the previous couple of seasons when he was booed by the home crowd in Pittsburgh.

The old Stewart would short-hop throws to receivers and had a 54.4 completion percentage. The old Stewart would get frustrated and try to force passes into coverage, which led to 55 interceptions in five seasons. The old Stewart would fumble.

The new Stewart has found a comfort zone with first-year offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, and Tom Clements, the first quarterbacks coach he has ever worked with in Pittsburgh. They didn't try to turn Stewart into a pocket passer, and Stewart completed 266 of 442 passes for 3,109 yards and 14 touchdowns.

"Stew presents the problems of when things break down, he takes off and runs. They've got designed runs for him," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "Nobody ever thought an NFL quarterback could make it through a season with five or six runs every week. Great arm, too. He's throwing the ball extremely well this season."

But don't get the idea that Stewart is a great thrower. What he does best is avoid pressure and get the ball near the intended target, which allows his receivers to make plays.

The Steelers have big, aggressive receivers in Plaxico Burress (6 feet 5, 228 pounds) and Hines Ward (6-0, 200). They make plays, especially Burress, who burned Ravens cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks on Dec. 16 in the Steelers' 26-21 win.

What's even more interesting is that the Steelers have more depth at wide receiver than the Ravens have in their secondary. Ward has 94 catches for 1,003 yards, and Burress has 66 for 1,008. No. 3 receiver Bobby Shaw has 24 for 409 and Troy Edwards 19 for 283.

A key in the game will be the Ravens' nickel and dime coverage against the Steelers' three- and four- receiver set packages. The Ravens were strong in their extra-man coverages until nickel back James Trapp went down with a groin injury in the first half of the season.

One of his replacements, Carnell Lake, has played poorly. The Steelers will try to attack Lake with Shaw or Edwards out of the slot position. That makes it even more important for the Ravens to contain Stewart.

"We got pressure on him [Stewart] last time, but we didn't disrupt the timing of the routes," Marvin Lewis said. "We have to make sure we're very precise. We've got to be disruptive of the routes, and apply the pressure to get him on the ground."

It all sounds logical, but making it happen is the hard part. However, if the Ravens want to advance in the playoffs, corralling Stewart is the only way. He has become the centerpiece of the Pittsburgh offense.

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