Ravens steeled for uphill run

Vs. rugged Steelers, it's hit or be hit tonight

Gameday

Nfl Week 8

October 31, 2005|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

The Ravens' smash-mouth rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers has been defined by two teams running the ball, not two teams running in opposite directions.

Barring an unexpected turn of events tonight, it won't be hard for a national television audience to tell which team is on the verge of making a power play in the AFC North and which one is on the verge of chaos.

The Steelers (4-2) are coming off a statement game, one in which they roughed up the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens (2-4) are making their first Monday Night Football appearance in more than a year with question marks surrounding their slumbering offense and their battered defense.

But before you throw the Ravens under John Madden's bus, defensive end Terrell Suggs offered this rebuttal:

"I don't think they're going to go out there and run over us," Suggs said. "Like you said, all the odds are against us. You think we can't do it. We know we can do it. There's no doubt about it in our minds. This could be our finest hour. This could showcase what the Ravens are all about. The stage is set for us."

The odds are certainly against the Ravens, considering they walk in as 11 1/2 -point underdogs.

The Ravens haven't won a road game in 350 days, a six-game skid that ties the New York Jets as the longest current streak in the NFL.

They haven't scored a touchdown in seven quarters, a drought that spans 20 drives.

And they haven't got the luxury of leaning on their top two defensive leaders - linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed - who are out with injuries.

"We've got our work cut out for us," said Tommy Polley, who will start at middle linebacker for Lewis. "But what would be better than coming out on Monday night and putting it all together? I think we can get the job done."

If the Ravens needed more evidence to the contrary, consider that the Steelers are 10-0 in Monday home games under coach Bill Cowher.

"We know we have to come out ready for a brawl," Ravens quarterback Anthony Wright said. "As long as we come out with that mentality, anything can happen and we can pull this thing out."

In a feud with so much history and bad blood - remember Pittsburgh's Joey Porter shoving an injured Todd Heap to the ground last year - the Steelers don't expect the Ravens to lay down.

Pittsburgh considers its opponent desperate and dangerous, especially when the usually trash-talking Ravens have been biting their tongues all week.

"Maybe they're just laying low," Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said. "But you'd better believe when Monday night comes, they're going to be ready. This is the biggest rivalry in our division."

It's a rivalry that has traditionally been settled by the ground battle. In the past eight meetings, the team that has out-rushed the other has won.

That doesn't bode well for the Ravens, who have yet to get their running game cranked up.

Jamal Lewis has failed to crack 100 yards in six games, the longest rut of his six-year career. He vented his frustration over his contract situation last week and admitted he is concerned about getting injured when he runs the ball.

The Ravens have hinted at the idea of lining up Lewis and backup Chester Taylor in the same backfield.

"There's no one person to blame," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel said. "There have been times that we might have hit the hole a little better. There have been times we could have blocked it better. It just goes on and on and on."

There have been no such problems with Pittsburgh's running attack, the staple of its offense.

The one uncertainty is how Pittsburgh attacks the Ravens without Ray Lewis. The Steelers could keep giving the ball to speedy Willie Parker or they might ram Bettis up the middle against Polley, who has a reputation for being soft.

Either way, the Ravens know Pittsburgh will be coming on the ground. The Steelers have rushed the ball 62 percent of the time, averaging 34 carries and just 21 pass attempts.

"You look at their numbers and it defies all conventional thinking," coach Brian Billick said. "Job one for us is to stop the run."

The Ravens have to be more stout than last week, when they allowed their first 100-yard rusher (Chicago's Thomas Jones). The Steelers, meanwhile, haven't allowed 100 yards to a running back in 18 straight games.

"I think that running the football is not something you can just turn on," Cowher said. "It's a mentality. I think we have that mentality and Baltimore has that mentality, and that is why this is always one of those blue-collar, physical football games year in and year out."

The mentality of the Ravens' offense is to score a touchdown in any way possible.

The Ravens haven't reached the end zone in 113 minutes, 49 seconds. Even for those four starters on offense who experienced the five-game touchdown drought in 2000, the anxiety is already building.

"If we can get that early touchdown, you'll see me downfield trying to spike the ball," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "We just need some momentum on our side."

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