Dogged by questions, Ravens looking to unleash answers

Getting J. Lewis untracked is key to avoiding 0-2 start

Ravens Vs. Steelers

September 19, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

A cloud of uncertainty looms over today's home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, where the Ravens arrive with questions about their running game, their secondary and, ultimately, their season.

By sundown, the Ravens (0-1) will have re-established themselves as the defending AFC North champions, or their season will be put on notice by Week 2.

Since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only five teams that lost in the first two weeks of the season to division rivals have gone on to reach the postseason.

Panic has yet to infiltrate the locker room, which has been short on sound bites but long on significance this week.

"We're trying to get the lead of our division," said Ray Lewis, All-Pro linebacker and the Ravens' unquestioned leader. "Without saying much more, this game means everything. I think we understand that, and I think Pittsburgh [does] as well."

A divisional rivalry in which players have tried to rip each other apart over the years - with bounties, stomps to the head and confrontations outside the team bus - features two teams linked by common philosophies.

Their offenses are trying to get back to relentless running games. Their defenses, among the last to still use the 3-4 scheme, are equally aggressive and unpredictable. They even share a mutual respect, though Steelers linebacker Joey Porter calls it a "pure hatred" for one another.

"All shots are dirty, everything is dirty, so you don't have to feel bad about it when you do it," Porter said. "I'll knock you down, [but] don't lift your hand up because I'm not going to help you. Leave it that way. I know you don't like me. I don't like you. Let's go at it."

The running theme of the week has been the Steelers (1-0) going back to their rushing roots with new featured back Duce Staley. The same could be said of the Ravens.

Jamal Lewis, the reigning NFL rushing champion, was held to 57 yards on 20 carries in the season-opening loss to the Browns in Cleveland.

After the game, Lewis said he was satisfied with the amount of carries. Last week, the league's Offensive Player of the Year changed directions.

"We know how to run the football," Jamal Lewis said. "I don't think I actually got into a rhythm. It was a lack of chances. It wasn't a lack of blocking."

Billick had a 10-minute sitdown at Lewis' locker on Thursday, which is believed to be the first such meeting in Billick's six-year tenure with the team. Billick later said he was just "casually checking up" on Lewis and wasn't prompted by any event.

Lewis' carries have been a major barometer in determining the Ravens' success against the Steelers.

When he is limited to fewer than 20 carries as a starter, the Ravens are 0-4 against Pittsburgh. When he received 27 carries in last season's finale (the only time he has gotten more than 20 carries in the series), the Ravens won.

"We did a few things different last week trying to switch things up as far as scheme," said Lewis, who has not been held under 100 yards in consecutive games since December 2002. "I kind of see us reverting back to doing what we do best as an offense."

Bouncing back is also in order for the Ravens' secondary.

The Ravens shut down the Browns last Sunday for all but two plays. Communication breakdowns led to completions of 46 and 51 yards, which accounted for more than half of Cleveland's passing yards (180).

The emotions carried over from those mistakes will be mixed with the volatile feelings that come with matching up with physical Steelers receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress.

"If you can't get up and get ready to play this game," said Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister, "then you're never going to be ready to play the rest of the season."

The Ravens are banking on a handful of backups to be ready for the intensity of this rivalry.

While All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden will return after missing last week with a sprained left knee, the Ravens will be without four starters: center Mike Flynn (collarbone), receiver Travis Taylor (groin), nose tackle Kelly Gregg (knee) and outside linebacker Peter Boulware (knee).

Of their backups - center Casey Rabach, receiver Randy Hymes, nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu and outside linebacker Adalius Thomas - only Thomas has started more than eight games.

"We kind of got a perfect storm with injuries," coach Brian Billick said. "It's time for the younger guys to step up."

Today, the Ravens will prove that last week's upset did nothing to change their goals - they are aware that the past three Super Bowl champions opened with a loss - or they will absorb another crushing blow to a season of heightened expectations.

"You don't put something like going 0-2 in your head," Ray Lewis said. "Once you think it, you're done."

0-2 is a deep hole

If the Ravens want to reach the playoffs, they proably need to avoid an 0-2 start. Over the past five seasons, 42 teams have lost their first two games. Only four went to the playoffs, and 31 finished with losing records:

0-2 Reached Losing

Year teams playoffs records

1999 8 0 5

2000 10 0 8

2001 9 1 7

2002 8 2 6

2003 7 1 5

Ravens today

Matchup: Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0) vs. Ravens (0-1)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

Time: 1 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 4

Inside

Scouting report, statistics, lineups and more. Page 15E

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