Drawn to a thin line

Ravens will look to put pressure on Steelers' struggling offensive line

`That's been part of our success'

Boulware's status could dilute powerful pass rush

December 26, 2003|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher could single out a number of high-profile offensive players - such as receivers Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward or even quarterback Tommy Maddox - as key factors for his team. Instead, Cowher spouts off the Steelers' record when a relative unknown is in the lineup.

"When Marvel Smith has played," Cowher says, "We're 3-1."

Actually, Cowher is a little off. Smith, the Steelers' left tackle who has been bothered by a shoulder and neck injury this season, has played six games, with the Steelers going 3-3.

He will not play in Sunday night's game at M&T Bank Stadium, and that may be key for a Ravens team that may have to play without outside linebacker Peter Boulware, who is questionable with a knee sprain.

If Boulware is unable to go, the Ravens would be without half of the NFL's third-most prolific sack tandem. Rookie Terrell Suggs and Boulware's 20 1/2 combined sacks rank behind only the Miami Dolphins' Jason Taylor and Adewale Ogunleye (26) and the New York Giants' Michael Strahan and Kenny Holmes (22 1/2 ).

The Ravens do, however, lead the league in sacks (42), and hold a 7-4 record when they record two or more sacks in a game. The Ravens are 1-2 when they have failed to record a sack.

"We're a better team when we can get to the quarterback and get some pressure," Boulware said. "This week is going to be huge, especially against a guy like Maddox. We've got to get him out of his rhythm."

After having a career year last season, Maddox has been out of rhythm much of this one. With the offseason loss of left tackle Wayne Gandy and Smith out most of the year, Maddox has been sacked 36 times and thrown 14 interceptions, and the Steelers are 21st in the league in sacks per pass play.

Pittsburgh's instability on the offensive line has been part of the problem. Oliver Ross replaced Todd Fordham at right tackle midway through the season. With Smith's injury woes, Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca has had to flip-flop between guard and tackle.

"They have rebounded a little bit," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of the Steelers' offensive line. "They are playing well of late. Everybody deals with injury. It is going to be a good matchup but clearly that has been a key for them, when they are able to get good pass protection."

Protecting the quarterback for the Steelers is just as important as getting pressure on the quarterback for the Ravens. In the Ravens' last loss at Oakland, Raiders quarterback Rick Mirer was not sacked, was hit only a couple of times all game and did not have any turnovers.

"It's a trend," end Tony Weaver said. "Whenever we seem to get pressure on the quarterback, that causes turnovers. And that is a common theme for us. Whenever we force turnovers, we win. When we put pressure to cause an interception or we get a sack and force a fumble, that's been part of our success.

That was the case in Sunday's 35-0 Ravens' win over the Cleveland Browns. Suggs got two sacks and forced fumbles on both.

Targeting Jevon Kearse's rookie single-season sack record of 14 1/2 , Suggs, who has 12, could see his share of double-teams if Boulware is unable to go.

Boulware did not practice yesterday, but history dictates he will play. Boulware has yet to miss a game in his seven-year career.

"I think Pete is going to be out there, but you never know," Suggs said. "We're better out there when we are both on the ends. So we'll hope and pray that Pete can play, but if he doesn't, then we all have to step up."

Cowher is asking that of his team with Smith now on injured reserve.

The Steelers are 3-1 when Smith starts and makes it through an entire game and 2-8 when he does not.

"Losing him was big," Cowher said.

NOTES: Ed Hartwell (chest, questionable), John Jones (leg, questionable) and Bennie Anderson (knee, questionable) practiced yesterday, though Anderson was limited. The Ravens will return to their normal schedule today.

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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