Ravens' Polley now becomes man in the middle

He will shift to middle linebacker with R. Lewis sidelined by injury

October 29, 2005|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTER

For a refresher course on the nuances of how to play in the middle, Tommy Polley need to look no further than his own game film in the 2003 season.

It was back then when Polley flip-flopped between the middle and the weak-side linebacker spots in starting 14 games for the St. Louis Rams, experience that should be useful when Polley replaces Ray Lewis on Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Polley, who played at Dunbar, has started six games this season on the weak side for the Ravens. The team credits him with 24 tackles and two sacks, and credits Lewis with 77 tackles.

"It helps a lot, but football is football. If you can play linebacker, you can play it all," Polley said. "It's not a real big adjustment for me other than little reads here and there. I've been watching Ray the last month or two, and I've learned a lot from him and will follow his path."

Polley will have ample opportunity to do so. Lewis is expected to be out at least until the Nov. 20 home game against the Steelers with a thigh injury suffered Sunday against the Chicago Bears, team officials confirmed. It is the best-case scenario for the Ravens, who could be without Lewis as long as the Dec. 4 game against the Houston Texans if his injury does not respond well to treatment.

Lewis' absence, coupled with the loss of safety Ed Reed, out with a high ankle sprain, leaves the Ravens short-handed as they try to contain a Steelers team that runs the ball 60 percent of the time. Such a physical match of wills stands to be a personal test for Polley, who left St. Louis with a sullied reputation as a player who does not always like to take on blocks.

"It's a big challenge," Polley said. They're the No. 1 rushing team [actually, seventh] in the league, and that's what they do best."

Stopping the run is what Lewis does best. Asked if he has to game plan differently without Lewis, Ravens coach Brian Billick said, "Not really. It's hard to quantify exactly where Ray is in that process. You run certain things knowing that Ray's going to make those type of plays, but you've got to have faith in the guys you have.

"We're going to configure ourselves to do just that, to stop the run. Whoever is in that position has to do his job; not more than that, just his job."

There is not much complexity to the Steelers' rushing attack. Ravens safety Will Demps said he could just about call out their playbook - runs to either side of the line using counters and isolation plays with fullback Dan Kreider as the lead blocker.

Where the deception comes is from the play-action fake, which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is starting to master. Roethlisberger's play action has been especially effective inside the opponent's 20-yard line, where the Steelers have scored a touchdown 62 percent of the time, the third-highest percentage in the AFC.

Both of Roethlisberger's touchdown passes against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday came off of play fakes. Then the Steelers ran the ball 19 times in the fourth quarter and did not throw another pass.

"You've just got to use your eyes," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who bit on a play-action fake against the Bears that resulted in a touchdown. "You know they're going to do it, especially if you are an aggressive defense."

It starts, though, with establishing the run. The Steelers average 136.3 yards a game, and much of that credit goes to an offensive line that is living up to expectations.

Polley called the Steelers' offensive line great, and it should be considering it includes three first-round picks (center Jeff Hartings and guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons) a second-round pick in left tackle Marvel Smith and a third-round pick in right tackle Max Starks.

"They've got good coaching and definitely good players with the first-round picks," Ravens defensive tackle Kelly Gregg said. "All of those guys can play. They've been together for a little bit and work well as a unit."

The Steelers' offense has started the same lineup every game this season with the exception of a home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars when Roethlisberger and receiver Hines Ward sat out because of injuries. The Ravens, meanwhile, will have Bart Scott start at weak-side linebacker, Polley in the middle and Chad Williams in for Reed at safety.

Though he was already a starter, Polley will have to carry the largest load.

"It's an adjustment, but all of us are getting paid," Polley said. "All of us were brought in for a reason. We can't replace those guys, of course, their intensity, their play-making ability and some of the other things. But I'm sure me and Bart and the guys can fill in and do the job just as they could. It's no big deal for us."

NOTES -- The Ravens placed fullback Alan Ricard on injured reserve, a move that will end his season. Ricard suffered a calf injury in the preseason and has not recovered from it since, though he did play in two games. The Ravens promoted linebacker Mike Smith from the practice squad to the active roster to take Ricard's spot. The Ravens signed former Michigan State linebacker Ivory McCoy to the practice squad. Rookie Justin Green will play in place of Ricard and an injured Ovie Mughelli (ankle, questionable) on Monday.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

Ravens@Steelers Monday, 9 p.m., chs. 2, 7, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Steelers by 10

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