League analysts say Steelers are vulnerable

OWINGS MILLS - Before the Baltimore Ravens departed Art Rooney Ave. in downtown Pittsburgh last December, this football team contemplated what it would take to topple the Steelers this year.

Following a 34-31 defeat sealed by Jeff Blake tossing an end-zone interception in the final seconds to end the season, several Ravens said the gap was narrowed during a 7-9 campaign expected to be much worse because of salary-cap hits.

Now, a slightly revamped club that includes rookie quarterback in Kyle Boller and healthy All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis is about to find out if the road to the AFC North division crown still travels through Pittsburgh.

Baltimore opens the season at Heinz Field on Sunday, and the defending champion Steelers remain the consensus favorite to win the division again. Several predictions rate the Ravens second behind the Steelers or third behind the Cleveland Browns.

"I wouldn't be shocked if Baltimore got past Pittsburgh in this division," said ESPN analyst Joe Theismann, a former Washington Redskins quarterback. "The Ravens are a legitimate playoff contender. They've recovered from the salary-cap problems."

Even before All-Pro outside linebacker Joey Porter was wounded in a shooting, another league observer mentioned other potential cracks in the Steelers' armor. "I don't think Pittsburgh will be as powerful as they expect to be, and Baltimore has made serious improvements," said Merril Hoge, an ESPN analyst and former Steelers running back. "Their offensive line is a big question mark. If that's a problem, it doesn't matter how good the skill players are.

"The secondary used to be a strong suit. Now, it's weak. If Kendrell Bell is healthy and used creatively, that helps tremendously. This is a good football team, but I don't think they hold that dominance they did a few years ago."

Both teams return most of their personnel as they entered training camp with 20 of 22 starters returning.

The Steelers benched bruising runner Jerome "The Bus" Bettis for Amos Zereoue, a more streamlined mode of running the football.

Of course, the major change for Baltimore is Boller, a first-round draft pick, supplanting Chris Redman under center. This move goes against the tradition of not pairing a rookie-signal caller with a playoff contender. To compensate for starting a rookie, the Ravens are likely to employ something of a ball-control offense. One based heavily on Jamal Lewis running behind a hefty offensive line and a lot of passes directed toward Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap.

"Regardless of how this kid Boller has played, you certainly can't ask this kid to handle things like a veteran," Hoge said. "He needs a year to be exposed to the league. He's going to see a lot of complicated blitz packages from the Steelers. It should be an intriguing matchup."

The Ravens point toward Ray Lewis being rejuvenated following shoulder surgery along with running back Jamal Lewis being two years removed from tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Lewis rushed for 1,327 yards and six touchdowns last season and is in his best condition since his rookie season when he set a team rushing mark and Baltimore won the Super Bowl.

"There's no doubt that Ray is an impact player, but I think their season will be based heavily on how Jamal Lewis does," Hoge said. "People forget that in the middle of the Super Bowl the reason the defense was dominant was that it only played about 50 snaps. "People forget how much an offense impacts a defense. The pivotal player is actually Jamal Lewis. This kid got overlooked last year."

Baltimore signed veteran receivers Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson to go with former first-round pick Travis Taylor. Sanders missed nearly the entire preseason with injured toes. Robinson just started to perform better after a frustrating month.

"Baltimore doesn't have real explosive guys outside, so you can't expect many explosive plays," Hoge said. "Todd Heap is their explosive player. He doesn't play with the flash that Jeremy Shockey does, but he's a big-time player. "

Even without Porter, who had nine sacks and four interceptions last season, Boller will be under attack from Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis's schemes. Outside linebacker Jason Gildon was a Pro Bowl alternate last year with nine sacks. Clark Haggans, Porter's replacement, had 6 ½ sacks off the bench. Bell was hampered by an ankle injury last year after being named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2001 with nine sacks.

"It's going to be a fast and furious game," Heap said. "I think Kyle can do a great job."

Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox is back along with talented receivers Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle-El. Defensively, Pittsburgh drafted USC safety Troy Polamalu to try to shore up a thin secondary.

"No matter what's different, it usually comes down to us and Baltimore in a real competitive way," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said.

Ravens coach Brian Billick noted how the Ravens' average age is still only 24.7 years with average amount of experience increasing from 3.2 years to 3.8.

Entering his 43rd and final season as majority owner, Art Modell said this edition is superior in talent to the Super Bowl team. General manager Ozzie Newsome isn't making those type of bold comparisons. "I think we've got a lot of energy and some real good athletic ability," Newsome said. "That was more of a gray-beard squad. Those guys could basically track their own course. With these guys, we have to kind of guide them a little better."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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