Ravens ready to test air defense

Steelers' Maddox presents problems to secondary with playoffs at stake

'We'll step up to the challenge'

NFL's No. 4 pass defense has tightened since Baxter was moved to cornerback

December 25, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Ravens will test their playoff worthiness in a duel with Tommy Gun.

Advancing to the postseason and beyond probably hinges on how the Ravens handle quarterback Tommy Maddox, whose Pittsburgh Steelers have averaged 33 points in winning all three of his starts in this AFC North rivalry.

Although he has had no better than an average season, Maddox has always been spectacular against the Ravens, completing 71 percent of his passes for 626 yards, with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.

"In order to beat Pittsburgh, we have to defend the pass better than we have, plain and simple," coach Brian Billick said. "We can't let them get cranked up in their passing game and create any kind of separation that could arbitrarily push us out of our [running] profile."

Besides having that challenge placed squarely on its shoulders, the Ravens' secondary is also carrying a chip there, too.

Ranked fourth in the NFL in pass defense, the Ravens have held six of the past nine opposing quarterbacks to under 200 yards passing.

Plus, half the starting secondary -- cornerback Chris McAlister and strong safety Ed Reed -- was named to the Pro Bowl last week.

"I do like the fact that he presented that as a challenge to our secondary," McAlister said. "I have nothing but confidence in the way we're playing as a unit. We'll step up to the challenge."

This challenge represents a playoff prelude.

If the Ravens clinch the AFC North with a win over Pittsburgh or a Cincinnati Bengals loss, they likely would face one of the league's top passing attacks every step of the way in the postseason. Of the five AFC teams that have qualified for the playoffs, four (the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots) rank in the top 10 in passing.

"The last couple of weeks, we have been challenging ourselves to turn it up another notch and make things happen," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "If we want to go where we want to go, we have to bring our A game every single time we play."

The Ravens turned the corner as a secondary when Baxter moved from safety to corner, replacing Corey Fuller.

With Baxter and McAlister as the starting cornerbacks, the Ravens have two physical and fast cover men who have the size to play bump-and-run and the instincts to jump receivers in zone.

Since Baxter made the switch permanently a month ago, the Ravens are 3-1 with the defense making seven interceptions while giving up two touchdowns through the air.

In last season's finale, Baxter had his best game at corner, holding Steelers big-play receiver Plaxico Burress to three catches for 52 yards.

Presumably, the Ravens will stick Baxter on Burress and put McAlister on receiver Hines Ward in a Pro Bowl matchup.

"Playing corner allows me to play much more faster and much more aggressive," Baxter said. "That's what I really like."

The team taking the more aggressive approach during the week has been the Steelers, who have not shied away from trash- talking.

"I'd rather have Cincinnati go than Baltimore," Ward said about the playoffs. "Just for [Bengals coach] Marvin Lewis' sake. He's done a tremendous job in Cincinnati. I'd rather have Cincinnati than Baltimore. ... It would be more exciting than watching those guys [the Ravens].

"I don't think anybody likes Baltimore, period. They're a confident team and they're playing well, but they don't like us for whatever reason. They talk more than most teams."

The Ravens, though, have given the Steelers the silent treatment.

"I was advised not to say much and I won't say much," Reed said. "It's no secret about what needs to be done."

Reed has some retribution on his mind.

In the season opener at Pittsburgh, he bit on a fake that left tight end Jay Riemersma open for a 20-yard touchdown catch. After the game, Steelers coach Bill Cowher said, "We designed to get Jay matched up one-on-one against Ed Reed, and he just beat him really bad."

When asked about those comments, Reed said: "They got what they wanted last game. Let's see about this one. Pittsburgh-Baltimore, Sunday night, tune in."

Despite the Steelers' 6-9 record, there's still no better measuring stick for the Ravens than Pittsburgh.

Whether it's quick slants or fade routes, Maddox has primarily beaten the Ravens with his favorite targets, Ward and Burress, who have combined for 36 catches, 457 yards and five touchdowns during the past three meetings. If the Ravens can shut them down, they likely would earn a playoff spot as well as confidence that would extend into the postseason.

"I think you've seen that group progress all year long," Billick said of his secondary. "This group is playing at an elite level. This will be an elite test."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (9-6) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-9)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 7 1/2

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