- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Bus is out of service. Ray is back. The Ravens start a rookie at quarterback. And the Steelers have a linebacker with a hole in his backside. Are you ready for some AFC North football?

The Baltimore Ravens open their eighth season today in the same place last year’s surprising 7-9 campaign ended — Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. However, the profiles of each team certainly have changed since last December.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher benched bruising running back Jerome Bettis, a 5-foot-11, 252-pound load, in favor of Amos Zereoue (5-8, 212) and then released fullback Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala (5-11, 254), in the preseason.

It would appear Cowher plans to air it out this season and play to his team’s strength with veteran quarterback Tommy Maddox chucking it to perhaps the best set of receivers in the league: Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El and steady tight end Jay Riemersma. It’s easy to make that decision when you have two returning 1,000-yard receivers.

“Certainly, we feel like we can run the football,” Cowher said. “You need to have balance on offense. When you look at our football team, you get the emergence of a Hines Ward [112 receptions for 1,329 yards and 12 TDs in 2002], a Plaxico Burress [78 receptions for 1,325 yards and seven TDs] and an Antwaan Randle El [47 receptions for 489 yards and two TDs] and you’ve got a quarterback like Tommy Maddox, you want to utilize those strengths as well. We are going to play to our strengths. Running the football is something that we are not going to get away from or deviate from. We still think that’s the backbone of what we want to get done.”

It could be difficult to run against the Ravens with a healthy Ray Lewis. Lewis, the five-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker, missed 11 games in 2002 with a left shoulder injury, including the Steelers’ season-ending 34-31 win.

Lewis is convinced the Ravens are the team to beat in the AFC North, even though the reigning champion Steelers went 10-5-1 last season and are favored to repeat.

“If you really want to be technical about it, winning the division is one thing and going all the way and winning [the Super Bowl] is totally different,” Lewis said. “Last time I checked, the Ravens were the last one to win it from the AFC North. So, if you want to say that it goes through Pittsburgh, you all can say that, but we think that it goes through Baltimore.”

Ravens coach Brian Billick is going against conventional wisdom and starting rookie quarterback Kyle Boller against the Steelers blitz-happy defense. Boller, the 19th overall pick in April’s draft, comes off an impressive preseason in which he completed 40 of 68 passes for 456 yards and four TDs and just one interception.

“They’re going to try and rattle any quarterback in there,” Billick said. “That’s their style. They’re going to bring the safety up, they’re going to drop back, whether the guy is a rookie or if he’s been in the league for 15 years. It’s no different from what we’ve faced before, and we’ll prepare the young man as best as we can to anticipate what they’re going to do.”

What the Steelers’ defense is going to do is no secret: blitz Boller early and often. Linebackers Jason Gildon, James Farrior, Kendrell Bell and Clark Haggans will look to get more acquainted with the 21-year-old rookie from California.

The Steelers’ pressure is somewhat diminished without Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, who was shot in the buttocks early last Sunday morning in a drive-by in Denver. Haggans will fill in for Porter at right outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Haggans recorded 6 sacks as a backup last season, when he was used primarily on passing downs.

“It’s significant because [Porter is] an outstanding player,” Billick said. “You just don’t pull an outstanding player out of the lineup and say, ‘It’s business as usual.’”

The matchup of the game will take place on the outside as Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister faces the 6-5 Burress. Burress has 25 catches for 411 yards and five touchdowns against the Ravens in the last five meetings. But McAlister isn’t concerned about recent history.

“I don’t owe any particular person anything on the Pittsburgh Steelers team,” McAlister said. “I owe the whole Pittsburgh Steelers team a loss, and that’s what we intend to go down there and give them. I don’t feel anybody has gotten the best of me. I feel [Burress] and I have had our battles, and that’s how it’s always going to be. Not to insult their receiving corps, but I don’t think they’re the best we’ll face all year. I don’t think they are the elite receiving corps in the NFL, for that matter.”

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