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Steelers Primary complaint is play of secondary

Monday, September 08, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Early in the week, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, wary of a trash-talking duel, ordered his defensive backs to stay quiet about the Steelers' wide receivers.

Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress slips away from Ravens cornerback Corey Fuller to bring in a pass for an 8-yard gain in the second quarter. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

At no point, though, did he advise them to stay away from them, something which was not terribly evident in the Ravens' 34-15 loss yesterday at Heinz Field.

"We knew what they wanted to do, and we knew what we had to do," cornerback Corey Fuller said. "You would never know we spent eight days -- no, eight months -- preparing for this game. ... It's not like we practiced all that time just to say, 'Oh, y'all run free.' It didn't go down like that."

But the Ravens' secondary did go down. And hard.

Time and again, Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress found open space in the Baltimore secondary that could rival the Great Lawn outside the stadium, reeled in passes from quarterback Tommy Maddox and sprinted off with big yardage. Ward finished with nine catches for 91 yards, a 10.1 average per catch. Burress had six catches for 116 yards, a 19.3 average. Maddox completed 21 of 29 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns. Together, they burned the Ravens in single coverage, double coverage, nickel, dime, any formation they saw.

"When you make little mistakes against a team like Pittsburgh, they can turn it into something big," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "And we made a lot of little mistakes."

The first might have been made by the coaching staff in frequently allowing Fuller and fellow cornerback Chris McAlister to match up one-on-one with Ward and Burress early on. Of eight first-half passes Maddox attempted to Ward or Burress with Fuller or McAlister providing primary coverage, eight resulted in completions.

Exacerbating the problem was the lack of a pass rush to force Maddox's hand. He was sacked twice for 9 yards in losses but mainly had plenty of time to see the field and find his receivers.

But worst by far was the abysmal performance of the defensive backs, whose miscommunications and mishaps were the dominant element of the Ravens' defeat.

And this from a defense which had been touted by some as ranking among the NFL's elite.

McAlister, a long-beleaguered victim of Burress, declined to give interviews after the game, but Fuller and others had plenty to say. And they were far more focused on their errors than the Steelers' excellence.

"I don't respect them, nor do I disrespect them," free safety Gary Baxter said. "Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress ... everything they got, we gave them. We let it happen to us. It was just one of those days that it went bad for us. But we're not going to get caught up in Hines and Plaxico or any of the numbers that they put up against us. We know that we're good. We've just got to figure things out."

"We did everything the opposite of what we usually do," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You know what they did today? They came out and said, 'Look, this is how simple we're going to make it.' And we did something else. ... If Pittsburgh beat us, I can take it. But to play like this ... "

Fuller, always a champion talker during and after games, was making his Ravens debut after four years of bitter encounters with the Steelers as a member of the Cleveland Browns. He made it through only a half of this one because of a leg injury, but that did not prevent him from holding court afterward with the media, as usual.

He shared his teammates' view that the Ravens had more to do with the outcome than the Steelers.

"I think it's more what we did to ourselves than what they did to us," Fuller said. "I mean, give them credit. Those guys aren't 1,000-yard receivers for nothing. They had a good game. But there's no way you can picture the Baltimore Ravens' defense playing like that."

Several of the Ravens' defenders accused Ward and Burress of excessive trash-talking during the game, and Fuller was particularly incensed by a second-quarter incident in which Burress was flagged for taunting but actually shoved Fuller's helmet after Fuller was slow to release him from a tackle.

"I didn't get caught up in the talk, but I didn't like that Plaxico got up off the ground and pushed me in my face," Fuller said. "I don't know what it is with these guys, where they think this is some kind of personal thing. We play hard, what's inside the whistles. All that extra pushing and stuff is easy because the ref's going to stop you, your teammates are going to jump in. ... You really want to see how tough you are? Every day, we walk past each other in Florida and stuff like that. ... They've got this false reputation where they think they're tougher than they are."

"We can't get caught up in all the trash-talking they were doing," Baxter said. "They got the best of us today, but I don't respect any one of them."

Fuller closed his interview session with a parting shot at the Steelers, although it might have been easy to misinterpret his target:

"If they think they're going to get that lucky every Sunday, they're crazy."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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