Ravens' secondary vs. Steelers' receivers

OWINGS MILLS - There's more noise than a political convention with enough strutting and roughneck tactics to rival a professional wrestling match.<br><br> It's another encounter between the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl-laden secondary and the Pittsburgh Steelers' elite receiving corps in Sunday's home opener at M&T Bank Stadium.

These matchups often become chippy with lots of personal fouls.

"It's very emotional and I'm fine with that as long as you don't play somebody else's game," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose defensive backs were beaten deep twice in a 20-3 loss last week to the Cleveland Browns. "That's the key. There's a great deal of respect even though the emotions are very high."
Only recently have the Ravens had a worthy retort to Steelers receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, limiting them to three catches for 24 yards in last year's 13-10 overtime win in Baltimore.

In the five prior games, Burress torched Baltimore for 27 receptions, 471 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Ward totaled 26 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns in that span against the Ravens and gloated after every big play.

"It's one of those things where they don't really like us, and we don't really like them," said Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister, who limited Ward to two catches for 11 yards in last year's regular-season finale. "It's always been a physical battle. It's always been one of those, 'fight to the very last whistle, fight to the very last second on the clock.'

"It's a game that if you can't get up and get ready to play, then you're never going to get ready to play the rest of the season."

The Steelers have emphasized the run heavily since ranking 31st on the ground last season, adding Duce Staley to go with bruising power back Jerome Bettis. However, they still have the capability to strike deep.

And quarterback Tommy Maddox, while erratic, has flourished against Baltimore.

He's 3-1 as a starter against the Ravens, setting a career-high with a 134.3 passer rating in a 34-15 win to open last season. He's completed 73 of 110 passes for 734 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions against Baltimore.

"We're just looking to get back on track," McAlister said. "We made some mistakes and we're looking forward to having corrected them. The nature of this team is to take shots downfield, more so than Cleveland's objective was. So, it's something that we're geared up for to shut them down."

Besides the 6-foot-6 Burress and the speedy Ward, the Steelers feature a shifty third option in Antwaan Randle-El.

Because of Randle-El's presence, the Ravens are likely to need nickel back Deion Sanders more than last week when he was limited to 15 snaps. That workload might double on Sunday.

Cornerback Gary Baxter, who will play with a soft cast to protect a stitched-up hand, called Ward the Steelers' tone-setter.

"I think those guys feed off of him," Baxter said. "That's one reason why Pittsburgh has their swagger because of a great player like him."

Billick said that Ward's demonstrative style angers him, but added that: "I'd take him in a New York second."

Ward called the Ravens cocky."They walk around with a swagger," he said. "It's pure hatred out there."

Overall, though, it's been a fairly quiet week for the secondary in the Ravens' locker room.

"We are going to play Ravens football," safety Ed Reed said. "We aren't going to get caught up in that jabber jawing."

NOTES: Billick indicated that offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (knee) is likely to play. He was upgraded from questionable to probable on the injury report. Wide receiver Travis Taylor (groin) was ruled out.

Quarterback Anthony Wright, who's on the physically unable to perform list, said his surgically-repaired shoulder felt sore after a throwing session this week, but said he's still on target to resume practicing in five weeks. "There's no doubt about that," Wright said.

The Ravens moved practice Friday to their new indoor facility because of the rain.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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