Ravens looking to affirm status as contenders

Showdown with Pittsburgh is for AFC North's top spot

Redman now questionable


NFL Week 8

October 27, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Soaring high after weeks of defying expectations, the Ravens encounter a reality check today.

Their confrontation with the Pittsburgh Steelers is for first place in the AFC North, but the Ravens see that as only part of the prize and the test.

The surging Steelers strut into town with everything that the rebuilt Ravens want back: a certain swagger, the respect of the division and a stronghold on the Ravens' home field. The task of capturing them back might become more difficult without the services of quarterback Chris Redman and linebacker Ray Lewis, both of whom are game-time decisions.

By sundown, the Ravens will either have made a statement or will have had another painful loss shoved down their throats by the Steelers.

"We need this challenge," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "I think it's going to show us exactly where we stand and how much we've learned from our wins and losses."

Redman reported to yesterday's walkthrough with a stiff lower back and did not practice. The first-year starter had similar soreness in his back last week and is now listed as questionable. If he cannot go, veteran backup Jeff Blake would start.

The other injury concern is Lewis, who practiced this week for the first time since partially dislocating his left shoulder Oct. 6. He is also considered questionable, making it a guessing game for the Steelers.

"Every team has to deal with this sort of situation at some point," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I think Chris is going to be fine. We just have to see how his back loosens up between now and the game. It's the same with Ray's shoulder."

A victory by the Ravens (3-3) would give them a winning record for the first time this season and would legitimize their chances of capturing the franchise's first division title.

A win by the Steelers (3-3) would put them in total control of the AFC North, so soft is their schedule. Pittsburgh doesn't face a team with a winning record until its Dec. 23 game at Tampa Bay.

This tug-of-war for the division lead in Week 8 is only half of this territorial battle.

The Steelers have owned the Ravens' home field - whether it has been named Memorial, PSINet or Ravens Stadium - winning in their past five trips here. The Ravens' only victory over Pittsburgh in Baltimore came in 1996, the franchise's first season.

But the Ravens won't let the Steelers celebrate again on their own turf without a fight.

"This is the kind of game we want to play," Ravens running back Jamal Lewis said. "This really tests your manhood and tests your team. You can see who is going to stand behind you. Whoever is the most physical is going to win."

The animosity in this already heated grudge match grew last year.

The Ravens became the first team to win at the Steelers' Heinz Field, and Pittsburgh repaid them twice. The Steelers not only clinched last year's AFC Central title at PSINet, but they also ended the Ravens' reign as Super Bowl champions in the divisional playoffs.

"Whoever wins this fight, they're the bully on the block," Ravens outside linebacker Cornell Brown said.

Although tons of trash talk led up to last year's games, there has been an eerie silence before this season's first meeting. But the lack of verbal jabs doesn't indicate that this rivalry has turned friendly.

"It's going to be a bad-blood type of game. They don't like us; we don't like them," Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress said to Pittsburgh reporters. "I don't know what it is, but every time you get that Raven game on your schedule, it's like, `It's the Ravens.' And everybody kind of gets a little pep in his step. It's good. You go out there and play hard against a team you basically don't like."

This old rivalry has a new cast of characters.

Kordell Stewart, who was 5-0 as a starter in Baltimore, was benched as the Steelers' starting quarterback three weeks ago and replaced by Tommy Maddox. Jerome Bettis is out with a sprained knee, and backup Amos Zereoue takes over as Pittsburgh's featured running back.

Ravens All-Pro inside linebacker Lewis He practiced Friday for the first time since injuring his shoulder, but team officials call him "very questionable."

Without Bettis and Lewis going head to head, Billick said, "It seems like we would have to call it something other than Ravens-Steelers."

For the Ravens to reach that big-time level, they will have to eliminate the big plays.

In three games last season, the Steelers produced 11 plays covering 20 yards or more. Burress, in particular, burned the Ravens more than any other receiver last year, making five catches of 25 or more yards.

McAlister, the lone returning starter from last year's Ravens secondary, was on the wrong end of many of those game-changing plays.

"I can play the same game I've played all year against Plaxico," McAlister said. "He's just another receiver. Last year was last year. I've got something to prove to myself this year."

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