Ravens are heavy underdogs against Steelers

OWINGS MILLS -- Instead of generating confidence, the Baltimore Ravens are creating controversy and disbelief. Instead of winning football games, they've discovered new and unusual ways to lose them. Instead of contending for the playoffs, they're just trying to stay out of the basement of the AFC North. Now, this turmoil-filled team will be on display in front of a national audience Monday evening against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

They'll will be without injured middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed -- the past two NFL Defensive Players of the Year -- for good measure.

"Don't think they're just going to run over us," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "There's no doubt in our minds that this could be our finest hour. This could be a showcase of what the Ravens are all about when all the odds are against us."

It's unclear which incarnation of the Ravens will be revealed on Monday Night Football.

Will it be the undisciplined, penalty-prone, turnover-plagued outfit whose struggling running back Jamal Lewis admitted this week that he's being cautious since he's in a contract year while expressing frustration at being the scapegoat for a pedestrian offense?

Or will the Ravens regain a measure of their old intimidating swagger that's been absent in an underachieving season where their bark and bite has diminished rapidly?

"You've got to embrace the challenge," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's a tall order. It's an outstanding team, Monday night at their place, but our guys will show up and be energized by it."

Even an abbreviated checklist of why Baltimore (2-4) has been installed as a 10-point underdog to Pittsburgh (4-2) doesn't really do justice to the disparity between two arch-rivals that traditionally have clashed for division supremacy.

The Ravens will be without six starters, including Lewis, Reed, quarterback Kyle Boller, fullback Alan Ricard, wide receiver Mark Clayton and defensive end Tony Weaver.

They have the worst scoring offense (11.5 points per contest) in the league. Baltimore has lost its last six road games dating back to last year, but is 4-1 all-time in Monday night games

The Steelers are 10-0 in Monday night home games under Bill Cowher, and haven't lost one of these since Chuck Noll's final year as coach in 1991. They're averaging 24.8 points and rank third in the AFC in red-zone efficiency with a 61.9 touchdown percentage.

Baltimore hasn't won in Pittsburgh since Nov. 4, 2001 with Randall Cunningham at quarterback. Starting with a playoff game after that season, Baltimore is 0-4 at Heinz Field.

And the Ravens have been flagged for 64 penalties (fifth in the NFL) for 481 yards, an average of 10.7 penalties and 80 yards.

"We come in as the underdog, and rightfully so," said linebacker Bart Scott, who will make his first NFL start at weakside linebacker. "But you can't sleep on an underdog."

Perhaps so, especially since the Steelers have lost their last two games at home and are 1-2 this season at Heinz Field. However, those two losses were to the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (23-20) and the Jacksonville Jaguars (23-17 in overtime).

It doesn't appear that the Steelers are taking the Ravens lightly despite their decline.

"We are disregarding the record," Cowher said. "That is still a good football team. By no means is this a team to be written off. If you back a competitive team into a corner, they're going to come out fighting.

"It's going to be a physical contest, and these are two teams that respect each other, but have a genuine dislike for each other."

The primary reasons why the Ravens are losing is an offense that struggles to run, pass and score consistently. Despite the presence of new offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and receiver Derrick Mason, the Ravens are on pace for a franchise-low for points and rank 20th or lower in 11 offensive categories.

"We have to play better than we have all year," tight end Todd Heap said.

The Ravens have hinted all week that they may shed their ultra-conservative approach and might increase backup runner Chester Taylor's workload.

"Right now, we're not putting points on the board as consistently as we would like," quarterback Anthony Wright said. "We're going to do it by any means necessary. We don't really have an answer for it. We have to keep pushing until we break through."

Plus, the defense has only taken the football away six times and the pass rush (11 sacks) isn't nearly as fearsome as predicted when defensive coordinator Rex Ryan installed the 46 defense.

The Ravens, who are two games behind Pittsburgh and 2 ½ games behind first-place Cincinnati, will likely need to go 8-2 over the rest of the schedule to have any chance to make the playoffs.

"I wouldn't imagine us being 2-4, but we've got our work cut out for us," said Tommy Polley, who will replace Lewis at middle linebacker. "We've got a lot of talent. We can get the job done. I think we can do it. It would be an added bonus without Ray or Ed."

The Steelers feature a prolific running game headlined by Willie Parker and an efficient, top-rated passer in Ben Roethlisberger who's 17-1 in the regular season.

Defensively, they've produced 20 sacks and 13 turnovers and sport Pro Bowl selections with linebacker James Farrior, safety Troy Polamalu and nose guard Casey Hampton.

"People on the outside looking in, I'm pretty sure they're writing us off," Wright said. "As far as the inside, we continue to fight. We know we have to come out ready for a brawl."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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