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Steelers Ross goes unnoticed in place of Gandy

Monday, November 05, 2001

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

After his hamstring was injured and he missed the final day of practice last week, Wayne Gandy said he didn't intend to sit out such a big game against the Baltimore Ravens. Not when the player he would be facing was Pro Bowl defensive end Michael McCrary.

And not when his backup, Oliver Ross, had never started a game in the National Football League.

"I don't want to be standing on the sidelines with a lollipop," Gandy said at the time.

Turns out, everyone was suckered.

Gandy did not play in yesterday's 13-10 loss to the Ravens, and Ross played nothing like a guy who was stepping in and trying to stop one of the best pass-rushing defensive ends in the American Football Conference.

Ross, a third-year player from Iowa State, did such a good job against McCrary, the AFC's leading sacker, that Coach Bill Cowher paid him what is the ultimate compliment for an offensive lineman.

"I didn't notice him -- so that's good," Cowher said. "I thought he did fine."

"He hasn't been in game competition for two months," said guard Alan Faneca. "To come in and play like that, I think he did pretty well."

Ross was told he would make his first start several hours before the game, after Gandy came off the field from stretching and testing his left hamstring. Gandy was injured in a one-on-one pass protection drill Thursday and he did not practice Friday.

Despite missing practice, Gandy said he felt "like a new car" and expected to play against the Ravens. But his hamstring never got any better, and the decision was made at about 11 a.m. to deactivate Gandy for the game -- ending his streak of 96 consecutive starts, dating to the 1994 season when he was a rookie with the St. Louis Rams.

"When I went out [on the field] in the morning, it was catching too much," Gandy said of his hamstring. "I thought it would heal up by Sunday. It didn't happen. And in a game like this, Baltimore has fast linebackers and an aggressive defensive front, I don't think it would have held up for the whole game.

"I didn't want to risk something else today, like a pull, then you're out three to four more weeks."

Gandy said he expects to be ready for Sunday's game in Cleveland against the Browns.

Not that the Steelers are worried about starting Ross.

McCrary was credited with one sack, pushing his conference-leading total to eight, but the sack came on a play where Kordell Stewart was attempting to run from the shotgun and was dropped for a 1-yard loss. Hardly the stuff of highlight-reel sacks.

"A couple times I got leaned on, but he didn't get in there," Ross said.

It's kind of what the Steelers were hoping for when they learned Gandy couldn't play. They didn't alter their game plan much -- "There were no adjustments," tight end Mark Bruener said -- and they didn't have to give Ross a lot of help on McCrary with an extra blocker.

"He was isolated with McCrary a lot," Faneca said. "We weren't calling plays to help him. I always had a little eye out, though."

Faneca did help out on one big occasion -- on Stewart's 21-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress that gave the Steelers a 10-7 lead. He and Ross double-teamed McCrary, giving Stewart enough time to find Burress behind cornerback Duane Starks in the end zone.

"That was my spot -- to protect the inside," Faneca said. "He does what he has to do and I do what I have to do."

"I thought Oliver played extremely well," Bruener said. "For a guy who found out on Friday he might be starting on Sunday, that says a lot about his mental preparation."

Ross' performance did a lot to ease the concern about depth at tackle. When the Steelers cut veteran Larry Tharpe in training camp, their only backups were Ross, who had appeared in just two NFL games since being a fifth-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 1998, and rookie Mathias Nkwenti, the team's fourth-round pick from Temple. A year ago, Ross wasn't even on the Steelers' roster.

He was signed to the practice squad in November after playing in the spring with the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe. Before that, Ross had appeared in two NFL games as a Cowboys rookie in 1998. He did not play football in '99.

Against McCrary, Ross grew up in a hurry.

"I have confidence in everyone on the offensive line," Gandy said. "That's one thing, the last couple years we've always had good backups."

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