Defense's last stand is no fond farewell

Breakup due next season, proud unit disappointed to part on 27-point note

Steelers 27, Ravens 10

January 21, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH - When the day finally arrived, and the best the Ravens' defense could muster was simply not good enough, there was no stiff-arming the reality of it: One of the greatest defenses in NFL history was finished.

At least in its current form, anyway. The salary cap and Father Time, two of the most unforgiving factors in professional football, will likely be to blame for the breakup.

Tony Siragusa has announced his retirement and Rob Burnett could choose a similar route. If not, the Ravens' salary cap problems will make it difficult for him to return. Duane Starks, Rod Woodson and Jamie Sharper could all be with different teams next season for similar reasons, a fact everyone was well aware of after yesterday's 27-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"This team isn't going to be the same next year," Siragusa said. "With the cap problems we have, I just don't see it."

Giving up 27 points and 297 yards in a playoff game was not exactly the curtain call the Ravens' tight defensive unit was hoping for. Countless times, it seemed, a Ravens defender had Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart in his sights, only to watch him dance away from a tackle (or three) for a first down.

"Kordell is very tough to prepare for because he's such a good athlete," said Sharper, who led the Ravens with 12 tackles. "It seemed like we had him in a lot of third-down situations where he scrambled around and made plays. He was the main reason why we didn't get back to defend our championship."

As frustrating as chasing Stewart was, even tougher to swallow was the Ravens' apparent confusion on defense several times. Cornerback Chris McAlister and safety Woodson allowed Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress to go uncovered on a 32-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, capping a 12-play, 83-yard drive that ate up nearly six minutes. The Ravens also got caught with too many men on the field (12) and too few (10) during the second half.

"There is a fine line between winning and losing and a fine line between cockiness and believing in yourself," Woodson said. "I don't know what side of that fine line we were on this year. I believed we could win today. Overall, I don't know about every single player."

Said Ray Lewis: "Their offense had a hell of a game plan. Kordell kept the ball safe and didn't make mistakes. They didn't go for the knockout blow, they just played sound football with their defense. They did a hell of a job. ... We needed to stop them and we didn't do it."

At least not enough anyway. With the Ravens already down 10-0, McAlister made what looked like a game-changing play in the first quarter, picking off a Stewart pass and returning it to the Pittsburgh 7-yard line. But two plays later, Steelers safety Brent Alexander intercepted Elvis Grbac in the end zone, ending the Ravens' best touchdown chance of the game.

"We thought the momentum was going to shift right then," McAlister said. "But as the game progressed, there were a lot of opportunities we didn't take advantage of. You can't just point to that one."

Said Woodson: "The Steelers just played better than we did this year. They had a better football team than we did, and they wanted it worse than we did this year. That's disappointing."

So what does the defense's future hold? At the moment, there aren't a lot of answers.

"Whoever does come back, we're going to try and pull this thing together," McAlister said. "We're going to keep up what we've always been doing. I don't think the system is going to change, but some guys are going to have to step up."

Said Lewis: "[As champions], everybody shoots at you. You ride it as long as you can ride it, but realize hopefully you can be a man about it when that day comes that you don't get back to where you're trying to go. That day has come for us now."

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