Ravens looking to avoid 0-2 hole

OWINGS MILLS - A perfect storm struck the Baltimore Ravens a week ago, and the tempest hasn't subsided. <br><br> A 20-3 season-opening loss to the Cleveland Browns marked by Kyle Boller's inaccuracy, a secondary that broke down twice, shoddy special teams and a running game kept on a leash has sparked a flurry of questions about the defending AFC North champions. <br><br> Was it an aberration or a gloomy indicator?

Heading into today's home-opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens (0-1) are reeling as they try to avoid an 0-2 hole that has kept all but four teams from advancing to the postseason over the last three seasons. The Steelers are 6-2 against the Ravens in Baltimore.

"This game means everything," said All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, whose team has won three of its past four home-openers. "You don't put something like 0-2 in your head. Once you think it, you're done."

In rivalry defined by helmet stomps, trash talk and fierce arguments between Lewis and Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, this figures to be an intense, physical encounter at a packed M&T Bank Stadium. Porter and Steelers receiver Hines Ward labeled the atmosphere as one of pure hatred.

"All shots are dirty, everything is dirty, so you don't have to feel bad when you do it," Porter said. "I'll knock you down. Don't lift your hand up because I'm not going to help you. I know you don't like me. I don't like you. Let's go at it."

Against the Browns, the Ravens got away from their blue-chip running game as Jamal Lewis was limited to 57 yards on 20 carries.

Once the Ravens fell behind, Lewis became an afterthought along with capable reserves Chester Taylor and Musa Smith. Dared to throw, Boller sailed passes out of receivers' grasp and threw two interceptions and fumbled once.

The receivers drew criticism for not blocking well enough downfield on running plays, and for not creating separation from the Browns' defensive backs.
Jamal Lewis complained about the lack of carries in a reversal of his post-game stance.

"We know how to run the football," said Lewis, who was paid a rare visit in the locker room by Ravens coach Brian Billick on Thursday. "I don't think I actually got into a rhythm. It was a lack of chances. It wasn't a lack of blocking."

Lewis' low for carries in last season's 2,066-yard campaign was 15 in a 34-15 loss to Pittsburgh last September. This week, he gets All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden back from a knee injury.

"We definitely want to block better and get Jamal into the secondary," receiver Kevin Johnson said. "That's the No. 1 thing we're concentrating on for this game."

The Steelers' 3-4 defense is stout against the run, especially bulky nose guard Casey Hampton. In six games against Pittsburgh, Lewis' only 100-yard game was last December with 114 yards on 27 carries.

"We did a few things different last week trying to switch things up as far as scheme," Lewis said. "I kind of see us reverting back to doing what we do best as an offense."

Under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers are "Blitzburgh" once again with outside linebacker Clark Haggans already notching two sacks.

"They're going to put a lot of guys in the box and we're going to get one-on-on coverage on the outside," Boller said. "It's my responsibility to get those guys the ball and their responsibility to catch it and do something with it."

The Steelers have returned to their running roots after ranking 31st last season, awarding free agent Duce Staley a $14 million contract and retaining mainstay power back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis. Staley rushed for 91 yards in a 24-21 win over the Oakland Raiders as Bettis scored three touchdowns.

"They're solid backs and are going to come downhill, but the Baltimore Ravens always stop the run," inside linebacker Ed Hartwell said. "Call it confident or cocky, but we don't think Staley or Bettis is going to run downhill on us. Let's knock them out."

Bold about their preseason status as Super Bowl contenders, several of the Ravens' vulnerabilities were exposed last week.

"For them to go down 0-2, they're digging themselves in a hole," Ward said. "The best way to shut their crowd up and keep 'em down is to hit them in the mouth early, score early and take the crowd out of the game. If we can do that, we stand a good chance against them."

The Ravens will play this game without four injured starters in linebacker Peter Boulware, center Mike Flynn, nose guard Kelly Gregg and receiver Travis Taylor. Nickel back Deion Sanders may play receiver, too, and play a cameo role in the return game.

Young players like nose guard Maake Kemoeatu, center Casey Rabach and receivers Randy Hymes, Devard Darling and Clarence Moore will be counted upon as Baltimore tries to avoid a second consecutive loss.

"Against Pittsburgh, you will grow up quick," Billick said. "And if you don't, you may die."

NOTE: All NFL teams will wear a No. 40 decal on their helmets to honor the memory of the late Pat Tillman.

The Arizona Cardinals safety walked away from millions of dollars to become an Army Ranger and was killed in Afghanistan earlier this year.

"He was the kind of guy all us strive to be," said tight end Todd Heap, who knew Tillman as a fellow Arizona State alum. "He laid his life on the line for all of us. He fought for our freedoms. He was a breath of fresh air."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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