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Ravens out to stop the Bus

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis still maintains he's the Bus, then the Ravens' defense should be considered the Bus Stop.

The Ravens have silenced Bettis, the Steelers' offensive staple, more frequently than anyone else the past two seasons. The NFL's fourth-leading active rusher, Bettis has only averaged 42 yards per game against the Ravens during that time, which is nearly half his production against the rest of the league.

In Sunday's season opener, it's a matchup that Bettis and the Steelers can't afford to lose again and one that the Ravens usually win. The Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 17 games, the NFL's second-longest current streak, which dates to the final game of 1998.

"We take pride in not having a 100-yard rusher," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When I say we take pride, we take pride in it. That's when you know you're ready for great things when you actually get mad because someone gains 3 or 4 yards.

"When we face the Bus, when we face Pittsburgh, it's a rivalry. Jerome's a great guy, but he knows what we're coming in there to do."

There's little subtlety in Bettis, too.

He's a 5-foot-11, 250-pound power back who explodes through holes. He lowers his pads to bull past tacklers and warrants a crowd to take him down.

Using that combination of size and force, Bettis has gained more than 1,000 yards each of the past four seasons.

"You have to put two chin straps in your bag," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said, "because you're going to wear the first one out."

The Ravens, though, have not been run over by the Bus recently. In his past three games, Bettis has averaged 2.4 yards per carry and hasn't had a run over 10 yards.

Bettis isn't the exception. He's the rule.

As the NFL's second-best defense against the run, the Ravens have stuck to a fundamental principle, stifling opponents to a league-best 3.1 yards each attempt.

So, what's the defensive secret? Staying on their feet.

It's key for the defensive front to maintain leverage on blocks, turning the running back toward the linebackers for the tackle.

"Our guys have developed a real good understanding of where the offense is trying to attack and run the football," Marvin Lewis said. "They are urgent and quick in getting to the spot and beating the offensive guy to the spot, putting the ball back where we want it to be run."

Unlike most of the league, the Ravens can keep this straightforward approach since they have enough bulk and athleticism throughout their lineup to pull it off.

But the Steelers will keep with their trademark offensive tenet of trying to establish the run by pounding Bettis up the middle. That's where defensive tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams need to control the gaps and blockers, leaving Ray Lewis and the linebacking crew to swoop in to finish the play.

That scheme translated in the Ravens holding every running back under 75 yards last season.

"They're really talented in terms of the speed that they have," said Bettis, a four-time Pro Bowl selection. "They present problems because they're physical, they run to the football and it doesn't matter at what point the game is, they're 100 percent."

The Steelers' running game is all about angle blocks and pulling a couple of extra blockers to the side where they're running the ball. Bettis follows that gang, looking to bolt through a seam.

Pittsburgh may be at a disadvantage from the start if center Dermontti Dawson is sidelined with his hamstring injury. There's only a 50 percent that the former All-Pro center will play.

Regarded as one of the quickest at his position, Dawson is relied upon to get out on linebackers and cut off the defensive pursuit.

"When people fall into problems playing against Pittsburgh, they don't realize what they're trying to do," said defensive end Rob Burnett, who has played against Pittsburgh for the past decade.

"They just have a really good system and have been doing it the same way for years and years and years. They have pretty much perfected it. The whole way to counter it though is to figure out what they're trying to do to you and not let them get what they want."

Bettis' biggest fear is the absence of a passing attack. The Steelers named Kent Graham their starting quarterback this week after he backed up Kordell Stewart the entire preseason.

If Graham struggles, Bettis cringes at the result - another Bus Stop.

"If we can't throw the football, then the numbers are pretty much going to stay the same," said Bettis. "They crowd the line of scrimmage, and they make it difficult for anybody to run the football."

Next for Ravens

Regular-season opener

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Site: Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 2 1/2

No running on the Ravens

Staying below 100

The Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Dec. 20, 1998, when Chicago's James Allen ran for 163 yards. It's a span of 17 straight games, the longest in the NFL behind St. Louis' 18-game streak.

A look at the Ravens' current defensive stand:

Date Team Leading rusher Yds.

12-27-98 Lions Barry Sanders* 41

9-12-99 Rams Marshall Faulk 54

9-19-99 Steelers Kordell Stewart 51

9-26-99 Browns Terry Kirby 51

10-3-99 Falcons Ken Oxendine 27

10-10-99 Titans Eddie George 55

10-21-99 Chiefs Bam Morris 70

10-31-99 Bills Jonathan Linton 56

11-7-99 Browns Karim al-Jabbar 23

11-14-99 Jaguars James Stewart 25

11-21-99 Bengals Corey Dillon 74

11-28-99 Jaguars James Stewart 46

12-5-99 Titans Steve McNair 33

12-12-99 Steelers Richard Huntley 68

12-19-99 Saints Wilmont Perry 11

12-26-99 Bengals Michael Basnight 41

1-2-00 Patriots Terry Allen 26

*-final game of his career

Bullish on Bettis

In the past two seasons, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis has averaged 42 yards per game against the Ravens and 76.7 yards per game against the rest of the league. A look at his game-by-game totals from 1998 and 1999 against the Ravens:

Date Att. Yds. Avg. Lg TD

9-6-98 23 41 1.8 9 0

9-19-99 16 46 2.9 10 0

12-12-99 13 39 3.0 7 0

Note: Bettis was inactive for the Oct. 18, 1998, game because of a knee injury.

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