Ravens' secondary has struggled against Steelers

OWINGS MILLS -- Indelibly seared into the Baltimore Ravens' collective memory banks are images of Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress agitating, play-making and gyrating. The Pittsburgh Steelers' brash receiving tandem have represented the Baltimore defensive backs' noisiest and greatest personal nemesis over the years, especially with quarterback Tommy Maddox under center.

Between Burress' vertical leap, speed and towering height on fade patterns, Ward's trademark toughness and hands on underneath routes along with Maddox's rapid release and accuracy, some ugly performances have ensued for Baltimore. Heading into a regular-season finale against Pittsburgh (6-9) on Sunday evening that will likely decide whether the Ravens (9-6) win the AFC North title and advance to the playoffs, the Ravens are keenly aware that this encounter needs to be different. "In order to beat Pittsburgh, we have to defend the pass better than we have, plain and simple," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose football team lost 34-15 to open the season in Pittsburgh. "We can't let them jump up. We can't let them get cranked up in their passing game and create any kind of separation that could arbitrarily push us out of our profile. It's an elite test." 

Padding coach Bill Cowher's 11-4 mark against the Ravens, Pittsburgh has won the last three meetings as Maddox completed 71 percent of his passes for 626 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions for a 105.8 quarterback rating. In the teams' first game this year, Maddox completed 21 of his 29 passes for 260 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 35-14 victory for an NFL-best 134.3 rating after the first week of the season. Of course, the quarterback they call 'Tommy Gun" hasn't deviated much from isolating his gaze on Burress and Ward, his primary targets downfield. They have combined for 36 receptions, 457 yards and five touchdowns against Baltimore with Ward under center as Pittsburgh has averaged 33 points in those three consecutive wins. "I think they have a good scheme going and they have the right athletes in place to make plays," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "Plaxico Burress can go deep. 

Hines Ward is a pretty tough guy who goes in motion and makes things happen. Antwaan Randle El can do all the short stuff in the slot." The Ravens are pointing toward the general improvement the pass defense has undergone since the debacle in Pittsburgh to open the season. Now, Baltimore ranks fourth in the NFL in pass defense. Half of the starters have emerged as Pro Bowl selections with safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister garnering the accolades. McAlister has put together a string of shutdowns of elite receivers, including the St. Louis Rams' Torry Holt, San Francisco 49ers' Terrell Owens, Denver Broncos' Rod Smith and Cincinnati Bengals' Chad Johnson. Additionally, Baxter held Burress to three receptions for 52 yards when he contained him with assistance from safety Will Demps in a loss to end last season. "We have grown over the weeks," Baxter said. "We have progressed and come together and know how to focus and not blow the little things and make mental errors. We take pride in holding each other accountable." 

During the first game, cornerback Corey Fuller strained his quadriceps as Burress hauled in a 47-yard reception. Baxter, who was playing free safety before permanently shifting to cornerback where Baltimore has a 4-1 mark with him in the starting lineup, moved to corner and Demps took his place off the bench. Between the final minutes of the first half and the third quarter, Baltimore surrendered touchdown passes to Ward, tight end Jay Riemersma when Reed busted a coverage and another wide-open Ward score for a 27-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter. "We had to make some adjustments," Baxter said. "We weren't able to bounce back. We had way too many mental errors, missed tackles and blown assignments. We had a lot of emotions going and all we had to do was play football." 

Since the first game, Baltimore has improved markedly. In the last eight games, the Ravens have held seven quarterbacks to under 200 yards passing. The defensive backs have allowed just 17 pass plays of 25 yards or more this season and the Ravens lead the NFL with 40 sacks. Yet, the stakes have been heightened against an offense that traditionally owns the Ravens. Especially in Baltimore, where the Steelers sport a six-year winning streak. "We lose, we probably don't get into the playoffs," McAlister said. "It's the biggest challenge of all. "

 Baxter said secondary coach Donnie Henderson won't be strictly pairing him opposite Burress, saying he'll likely split the matchup with McAlister. McAlister has struggled to check his emotions or Burress in the past, getting noticeably frustrated and incurring personal-foul penalties. "Chris is solid and I'm solid," Baxter said. "We've got a good chemistry going. Donnie has a lot of faith and trust in both of us to check Plax or Ward. If I do check Plax, that game last year was a benchmark that gave me a boost of confidence that lets me know I can compete with anybody now." 

Cowher gloated about the Riemersma touchdown in interviews after the first game, saying, "We designed it to get Jay matched up on one-on-one against Ed Reed, and he just beat him really bad." Reed hasn't forgotten that feeling, that piece of film or Cowher's remarks. "They got what they wanted last game," he said. "Let's see about this one. Pittsburgh-Baltimore, Sunday night, tune in." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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