Ravens ready to stand up to Steelers' offensive line

On the Ravens

December 25, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

IT'S AN OFFENSE that's just so balanced. On the outside, the Pittsburgh Steelers have receivers Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. Behind center, there is Wonder Boy quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and behind him are running backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley.

That's why the Ravens have to beat the Steelers at their core tomorrow, and that's on the offensive line. When the Ravens played Pittsburgh on Sept. 19, they controlled the line of scrimmage and got into quarterback Tommy Maddox's face a couple of times to help force three turnovers and win in a rout, 30-13.

The faces on Pittsburgh's offensive line haven't changed much in guards Alan Faneca and Keydrick Vincent, center Jeff Hartings and tackles Marvel Smith and Oliver Ross, but the group is playing with more confidence. The last time they met, the Ravens were without starting nose guard Kelly Gregg, and end Anthony Weaver had to leave the game early with a shoulder injury.

Now, the Ravens are healthy. So, the Ravens say, bring it on.

"That group takes on the personality of their coach [offensive line coach Russ Grimm] and I've got a lot of respect for him," said Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan. "He does one hell of a job. That's a good group. Going into the last game we played them, they were playing well, and obviously, they still are, having won 12 in a row.

"We've got to get them in those third-and-long situations to have a chance," Ryan said. "If they're in third-and-one, or third-and-two a lot, I don't care who you are, you're probably not going to succeed."

So, it's going to come down to stopping Pittsburgh's running attack. Since training camp started, the Steelers have let the world know they wanted to be the Steelers of old - the Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier Steelers, who just kept pounding the ball. They've succeeded. The Steelers have the No. 3-ranked rushing offense in the league, gaining 151.7 yards a game. Halfback Duce Staley has rushed for 809 yards on 184 carries and Bettis has 824 yards on 223 attempts.

Staley has missed five of the past seven games with a hamstring injury. Both could play against the Ravens tomorrow. The Ravens have had success against Bettis in the past because of his straight-ahead style, but Staley could cause problems. Together, they could wear down a defense that has been folding up in the second half of games.

"Duce is more versatile, able to do more damage on the perimeter," Ryan said. "Bettis, they may do a couple of counter steps with him, but he is more a crash-up-the-middle, can't-dodge kind of guy."

The Steelers have built that kind of offensive line. Like the Ravens' unit, it wants to run. But it's more athletic and versatile. Faneca is a stud who can run, block in space or knock an opponent off the ball with raw power. Ditto for Hartings. After several seasons of struggling, Smith is just starting to become a dominant player.

Here's another way the Steelers differ from the Ravens: Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher isn't as quick to abandon the run. He wants to physically and emotionally grind an opponent into the ground. The Steelers run traps, misdirections, stretches, almost every running play imaginable because there is nothing more humiliating in all of football than to have a team run it down your throat, and you can't stop it.

"Well, at least going in, you know what their intentions are," Ryan said.

Ryan has no fear, and neither do the Ravens. As a matter of fact, Ryan likes a good, old fight. He prefers to have the pressure on his group. As a unit, the defensive line has played well this season, especially against the run. Gregg has become one of the most dominant run stoppers in the league. Right end Marques Douglas has 77 tackles and has come up with big plays on short-yardage situations. Weaver isn't spectacular, but he's going to give you a steady, respectable effort every game. The Ravens' constant shifting will cause Pittsburgh some problems.

But the Ravens, No. 6 against the rush, will still have problems of their own. They still don't have a dominant pass rusher on the front line. Teams with big, strong offensive tackles (see the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans) have been able to dominate Douglas and Weaver, two smallish ends, in certain games.

But the Ravens know they have to be dominant up front. If not, the Steelers can run or throw. And if they have a lot of options, the Ravens will be in a lot of trouble.

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