PITTSBURGH -- For all the uproar over the Ravens' revitalized offense, it's their solid defense that should carry the day when they open the 2000 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers this afternoon.
The defense that returns 10 starters, including four Pro Bowl selections, from a banner 1999 campaign.
The defense that churned up 17 sacks and 11 takeaways in the preseason.
The defense that feeds off its own good karma and has become, in the words of pass rushing end Michael Mc- Crary, "one nice, smooth-operating, attacking machine."
That defense -- No. 2 in the NFL a year ago -- will attempt to turn opening day at Three Rivers Stadium into a virtual nightmare for quarterbacks Kent Graham or Kordell Stewart, or both.
"We have a confident personality," McCrary said of his unit. "We know we're capable of shutting people out. I think it's because of camaraderie that now people are taking pride in themselves, so that if one person messes up, they feel upset because they know they let the other defenders around them down.
"I think it's a situation where nobody wants to let each other down."
Or, in this case, let the offense down.
At this point, coach Brian Billick's double-tight end offense is still a work in progress. Until quarterback Tony Banks arrives at a happy union with his new tight end, Shannon Sharpe, and his reconfigured wide receivers, the Ravens' offense may need to lean on the defense for a while.
"I think most teams in the league count on that," Billick said. "The first two, three games in the season usually come down to mistakes, and usually offensive mistakes. Interceptions, fumbles, blown assignments. Quarterbacks getting sacked and the ball coming out with the free rusher.
"Early on, that's usually what dictates the games. Most people would think your defense has to hold up early in the season to give the offense a chance because nobody's gone a full game with their first offense."
The Ravens will try to dictate terms of surrender to the Steelers with a pass rush that has been relentless this summer. The components are already in place:
Steelers coach Bill Cowher has opted to start the less agile but more accurate Graham at quarterback ahead of Stewart. Graham, at 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, should wear a bull's eye today.
Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett, an 11-year veteran on healthy knees again, is matched up with Steelers rookie right tackle Marvel Smith. This is easily the biggest mismatch of the game.
After losing the last three season openers, and with five of their first seven games on the road, the Ravens are eager to validate their playoff candidacy.
Billick treads lightly when it comes to Three Rivers. As the Cleveland Browns, this team once lost 16 consecutive games there, from 1970 through 1985.
"You can't put your entire season into one game," he said. "But by the same token, everybody understands the importance of the first game. Playing on the road is difficult.
"Of the 15 games being played, in 11 of them, the home team is favored. That's for a reason -- because it's tough to open on the road and all the things that go with it. That's the challenge before us. And it's in a place that even though we won last year, this group of guys has not had a great deal of success there."
In their brief history, the Ravens are 2-6 against the Steelers. They won in Pittsburgh, 31-24, last December to snap a five-game losing streak.
"They always seem to be at the beginning of the season," McCrary said of the Steelers' games, "so it really takes the wind out of our sails. So this time, we're hoping to add the extra gust to our sails."
The biggest mystery this time is how the Steelers will use Stewart, demoted to backup quarterback. Will he replace Graham in selected series? Will he make an appearance as "Slash," the hybrid wide receiver-running back-quarterback role he played his first two seasons with the team?
Billick says he expects to see Stewart in some capacity, "whether it's in the Slash mode, at quarterback, on the goal line, short yardage, open field."
The Ravens know what havoc Stewart can create scrambling around the pocket.
"We have to get pressure on Graham because he probably is a better passer," McCrary said. "With Kordell, he's such a dangerous threat. You might as well be chasing a rooster. That's the only reason I don't like playing against Pittsburgh, because of Kordell."
Linebacker Peter Boulware seemed eager to join in the chase.
"Kordell will break out of the pocket early, and when he does, it screws up the defense," Boulware said. "[But] you know if he doesn't find something, he'll pull the ball down and give you a longer time to chase him."
Then there was middle linebacker Ray Lewis. His attitude was even more basic on the subject of which quarterback he'll be facing.
"Doesn't matter," Lewis said. "Our game plan won't change."
This is a defense ready for any challenge. It's a defense, Lewis said, that "wants to be the best -- not one of the best."
McCrary, who has the most sacks (46 1/2 ) in the NFL in the last 54 games, doesn't hesitate when asked how good this defense might be.
"I think our toughest opponent honestly is ourselves," he said. "It's unlimited."
Ravens at Steelers
Site: Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh
Time: 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 3