Porter's loss has major impact on Ravens-Steelers

OWINGS MILLS - The bullet that struck Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro outside linebacker Joey Porter during a drive-by shooting was successfully removed from his upper thigh Tuesday. The incident's impact on the Steelers' formidable pass rush for Sunday's season-opener against the Baltimore Ravens remains an undetermined issue along with how it will affect other NFL players' decisions about venturing into the nightlife.

Outside a downtown Denver sports bar located in a high-crime area early Sunday morning, Porter was shot in the buttocks with the bullet lodging in his right thigh. It's estimated he'll miss anywhere from two weeks to as much as half the football season.

"You don't wear a helmet and shoulder pads outside of work," said Baltimore Ravens offensive guard Bennie Anderson, a victim of a carjacking last year in St. Louis where a career criminal shot his car before he could hand over the keys. "We're just as vulnerable as anyone. You're just as susceptible to crime as the guy who works at IBM."

Detectives said Porter wasn't the intended target, yet a few inches higher and he could have died or been paralyzed. One man with a history of gang activity was killed during the fusillade of bullets. Four others were wounded. Porter was attending a party after a game between Colorado State, his alma mater, and the University of Colorado.

"You hate to see it for a young man just at the wrong place at the wrong time," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's a lesson to everybody. Even in the most innocent of circumstances, not too much good happens after midnight."

Porter has been a scourge for opposing offensive lines, generating nine sacks last season and 30.5 through four seasons. He also intercepted four passes last year and was integral to the Steelers ranking seventh in the league in total defense and first against the run.

Now, Porter will be on the sidelines Sunday instead of chasing Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller after being pierced by a stray bullet.

It's far from your typical way to lose a player to injury, although a few other NFL players have been shot this year, including San Diego Chargers rookie safety Terrence Kiel and Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dennis Weathersby.

There's been a high volume of attention devoted to Porter's injury with little mention of Christopher Wilford, the former convict and gang member who died in the shooting.

"We're just like regular people in society, and this is part of living in a dangerous world," outside linebacker Cornell Brown said. "It's just magnified more when something happens to us." Other than going out in large groups, employing private security, using limousines and avoiding places with unsavory reputations, there are few special precautions players can take. That is, besides simply staying home and watching television.

"All my life, I've been careful and watch where I go," linebacker Ed Hartwell said. "I'm not scared to go anywhere. There are certain rowdy places I don't go because there's an increased chance of something happening to you."

Steelers coach Bill Cowher warned his players this week to avoid situations where trouble could arise. He doesn't want to infringe on their private lives, though. "I certainly would not ask anyone to live their life in a shell and be afraid about doing things," Cowher told reporters in Pittsburgh, "but you have to be aware you're in a high-profile situation and there are people in our society who will try to exploit that. "The longer you stay out at night, the more risk you put yourself into. People's courage becomes greater as the night goes on."

In terms of how Porter's absence affects Sunday's contest, it may lessen the pressure somewhat on Boller and slightly curtail Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis' blitz packages. Lewis will still be able to call upon Pro Bowl alternate outside linebacker Jason Gildon, who had nine sacks last season, along with swift inside linebacker Kendrell Bell. Even Clark Haggans, Porter's replacement, had 6 ½ sacks as a reserve last year.

"They've got guys outside who can bring enough pressure," Billick said. "They're not going to change schematically." Even with Porter out, Boller is aware he's a prime target in his first NFL game. "He's a great, great player," Boller said of Porter. "They've still got one of the best defenses around. They're really fast and physical. Obviously, they will blitz me. We've got our work cut out for us."

Last season against the Steelers, Baltimore allowed one sack in a 31-18 loss and compiled a season-high 422 yards of total offense in a 34-31 defeat to close the season. In the second game as Jeff Blake launched 26 passes, he was sacked three times.

"I'll try to keep Kyle clean and keep him on his feet as much as possible," said right offensive tackle Ethan Brooks, who will share time with Orlando Brown.

Baltimore dealt with the fallout from losing perennial All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis last season due to a shoulder injury. Lewis' loss took an emotional toll and changed the defensive approach, but it also led to Hartwell leading the Ravens with 191 tackles. How will Pittsburgh respond to losing Porter? "I'm sure they'll bounce back," All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "They're tough. You expect to lose some people, but you can't fold up."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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