Roethlisberger haunts Ravens

October 24, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

IF YOU THINK the Ravens don't have to worry about the Steelers until Christmas weekend, think again.

True, they have more imminent matters before them, starting with today's home game against the Buffalo Bills. As if there haven't been enough games dubbed "must-win" by observers, here's another, for a wealth of reasons.

Among them is that the Ravens have to keep pace with the 5-1, first-place Steelers, who, to the surprise of most, are already looking back at them in a division that was expected to belong to the Ravens, now 3-2.

Granted, the Ravens have already beaten the Steelers, convincingly, in Week 2 at home. Ordinarily, that would dampen any concerns about the Steelers pulling away too far and relegating the Ravens to wild-card contention too quickly.

Yet it is that very victory that has set the table for the shocker the Steelers are pulling on them and the rest of the NFL. By busting up Tommy Maddox, the Ravens unleashed Ben Roethlisberger.

And without even having faced the Ravens since his unscheduled NFL debut, the rookie quarterback has become a sizable thorn in the Ravens' sides.

In fact, he's going to cause problems for them even while he and the Steelers enjoy a bye week. He did the same last week while the Ravens were enjoying their Sunday off, by going to Dallas, engineering a fourth-quarter comeback and a Steelers win over the Cowboys, remaining perfect as a starter and generating yet another round of compliments from around the league. The talk now is that Roethlisberger has that elusive, hard-to-define "it," thus assuring that for the immediate future, so does his team.

And this has to do with the Ravens because ...

They have a young quarterback of their own who needs that sort of comparison - to a player of similar experience level and draft position, in his own division - like he needs another injured receiver.

When the Ravens came off their bye week, the same questions awaited them from when they'd left after the, shall we say, unconventional win over the Redskins. What's wrong with the offense? How long before all the missing pieces are back? How is it going to do without Jamal Lewis for two weeks? Can the defense and special teams really be expected to bail it out for 16 weeks, or more?

The weekly ritual resumed. Kyle Boller stuck up for himself. Brian Billick stuck up for him. Ray Lewis stuck up for him. Hope sprang eternal. The facts didn't change, though. The 2,000-yard running back and the Pro Bowl tight end still are missing in action for today, and Boller inches even further under the microscope.

The three-interception night at FedEx Field two weeks ago - even if at least one pick wasn't his fault - may have been a learning experience, but the patience for those types of lessons is going to grow thin eventually. The Ravens can only hope that such "lessons" don't cost them a game. Particularly a winnable one against a downtrodden but defensively capable opponent, while Jamal Lewis is still serving his suspension.

A game like today's, for example.

All of this is bad enough, but throwing the exploits of Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh into the mix makes it even more volatile. Bill Parcells compared him to Dan Marino before last week's game, and stuck with his assertion afterward, understandably so. The Steelers are 4-0 with him in charge, and no rookie quarterback has had such a long winning streak at the beginning of his career in 25 years.

Before, the Steelers looked like underachievers. Now, they look like the first-place team they are. Their defense is the polar opposite of what the Ravens trot out every week, especially with the Steelers' rash of injuries. But the gap at quarterback, albeit at an extremely early stage, is uncomfortably wide.

Fair or not, Boller will suffer for that comparison until one of two things happens. Roethlisberger cools off and begins playing like the neophyte he is, or Boller makes enough of a leap to make the comparison worthwhile.

Boller, of course, doesn't necessarily have to be the kind of quarterback Roethlisberger is showing himself to be right now. If all he does is stick to the formula and do just enough to get the Ravens a win - and keep them on track toward that Dec. 26 rematch in Pittsburgh - there won't be room for anyone to complain no matter how much it's become a habit.

But he absolutely can't be the kind that loses games, that gives them away, that creates a burden too big for the defense and special teams to bear.

If that happens, this week, next week in Philadelphia or any other week, Boller and the Ravens will continue to hear more than they can stand about the quarterback to the north of them, on the map and in the standings.

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