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If they're that good, why play?

Raiders coach Jon Gruden talks up the Ravens defense, but it's just part of the game.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2001


ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Jon Gruden was ecstatic with the result of Sunday's Baltimore-Tennessee game because the Ravens' victory meant his Raiders will host the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

But he didn't necessarily like what he saw.

"Since I've been in football I've never seen a team be as dominant for as long a period of time as the Ravens defense has been," Gruden said.

"To yield just over 10 points a game for 18 games is eye-opening to me. To see what they did to the Denver Broncos in the first playoff game and to see what they did against a balanced physical offense in the Tennessee Titans, it opens your eyes."

And makes you rub them a few times.

Gruden couldn't say enough (or enough good things, anyway) about the Baltimore defense, lauding its defensive backs, its pass rushers, its nose tackle, its outside linebackers.

And then he got around to middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

"It's like there are three No. 52s out there," Gruden said. "He looks like a 260-pound middle linebacker that runs like a wide receiver and has a great passion to make every single play. This guy has a blinding passion to get to the football and he has great physical attributes. He's fun to watch play. He really is."

The Ravens, who set an NFL record for fewest points allowed, are as good as they are for a number of reasons, Gruden said: "It's the scheme, it's the talent and it's the intensity with which they play that makes them unique."

So, just how do the Raiders attack?

Very carefully, it turns out.

"We're going to study, study, study and try to do everything we can do to attack that defense within our style," Gruden said, "and at the same time try to be balanced and put the ball in the hands of our best players."

Gruden may sound intimidated, but it's all coach-speak, part of a weekly game the opposing teams play. In reality, Gruden is an extremely prideful offensive specialist who thrives on a challenge such as this, and having a trip to the Super Bowl awaiting the winner only adds to his motivation.

"This is going to be as good a competition as you can have if you're an offensive football coach or an offensive player," Gruden said. "When you look at the game films and the cutups and the statistics and the tendencies and what-not, you're going to see a lot of rejected offensive plays. A lot of rejection week in and week out against the Ravens."

But he's not backing down, either.

Told that Baltimore coach Brian Billick said last week that the Ravens-Titans winner would be the AFC champion, and that the Raiders and Dolphins knew it, Gruden flashed a quick grin:

"I know Coach Billick is a good coach and a smart coach, but if I'm not mistaken it's the winner of the next game."

INJURY UPDATE: The Raiders begin preparing today in relatively good shape. Running back Napoleon Kaufman is "very questionable at best" after aggravating a right knee injury Saturday, but otherwise the Oakland players were mainly just sore. Defensive tackle Grady Jackson (shoulder), defensive end Josh Taves (knee) and kick returner David Dunn (ankle) are expected to play and running back Jon Ritchie, who missed Saturday's game with an ankle sprain, is likely to be back.

DOLPHINS: Chan Gailey, the offensive coordinator who revamped Miami's attack in the wake of quarterback Dan Marino's retirement, will sign a two-year contract, coach Dave Wannstedt said.

- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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