Ravens ready for rush hour Steelers to bring battering-ram attack behind Bettis, Dawson; R. Lewis accepts challenge; Battle against center is potentially crucial


Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis went down a similar road two games ago. The opponent was the Tennessee Oilers. The running back was Eddie George and the center was Mark Stepnoski.

This time, the team will be the Pittsburgh Steelers. The running back is Jerome Bettis and the center is Dermontti Dawson.

Then comes the major differences. Bettis comes with a bodyguard in fullback Tim Lester and runs basically north and south.

"We do the same thing against them as we did against Tennessee," Lewis said. He leads the Ravens in tackles with 65, including eight against the Oilers.

"But Eddie George had more speed and was more of an outside threat. Bettis is like Bam Morris. He's north and south. And once he gets his shoulders square at the line of scrimmage, he's hard to bring down."

The Dawson-vs.-Lewis duel promises to be one of the most interesting games within the Ravens-Steelers game Sunday at Memorial Stadium.

Dawson, 6 feet 2 and 288 pounds, reminds Steelers fans of former Pittsburgh great and Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. Dawson is the only Steelers player to start every game during the past eight seasons and has been to five consecutive Pro Bowls.

Lewis is only in his second year, though he may be on the verge of Pro Bowl potential.

"Dermontti Dawson has great hips and explosion," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "He runs extremely well. He's one of the best."

Ray Lewis said: "He's considered one of the best. When you play against him, you have to come prepared. After the game, you want to be able to meet with him on the field and have him respect you. And then you give it back. That's what it's all about."

Lewis remembers the encounters with Dawson last season. During the first one on Sept. 8, the second game of the 1996 season, Dawson took Lewis to school and Bettis ran for 116 yards on 21 carries in a 31-17 Pittsburgh victory.

In the rematch on Dec. 1, Bettis had 105 yards on 24 carries, but Lewis held his own with a game-high 12 tackles in a 31-17 Ravens victory.

What did a year teach him?

"[Dawson] is an unusual center because he has exceptional athletic ability," Ray Lewis said. "The first time last year he got the best of me and the second time I thought it was a pretty good matchup. I've been looking at him this year and he's getting on linebackers pretty quickly."

The Ravens may play Dawson the same way they played Stepnoski. In the Tennessee game, the Ravens sometimes put a defensive tackle over Stepnoski's head to slow him from getting to their linebackers.

Lewis had eight tackles that game and George had a career-low 40 yards rushing on 10 carries.

In that game, Lewis had to use his quickness to battle the physical Stepnoski. Dawson can match Lewis' quickness.

"Stepnoski likes to grab you, lock onto you, while Dawson is more looser," Ray Lewis said. "He can fool you a lot, where you think you're in position to make a tackle, then he knocks you out of the way with one arm. You have to give Dawson different looks. Sometimes you snug him, get right in on him. Other times, you move side to side.

"One of the great things about Dermontti Dawson is that he's the leader of the offensive line and may be the entire offense," Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome said. "He's so quick that he can get out and seal almost half of a defense. And after him comes Lester. Then you've got to tackle 'the Bus'."

Lester is 5-10 and 238. He'll be the lead blocker unless the Steelers go with their four-receivers package.

"[Lester will] hit up in the hole and he's a fine blocking back," Ray Lewis said. "He's just another part of the challenge. We're not going into this game thinking about totally stopping Bettis or we're going to gear 50 percent of our defense to stopping him.

"We're just going out to play regular defense, and the rest will take care of itself."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Site: Memorial Stadium

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Steelers by 2

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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