Someone has to blink when Oakland's powerful running game meets Baltimore's rock-solid defense.
Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon slips away from New Orleans Saints linebacker Keith Mitchell in a November game. Opposing defenses have grown to fear the scrambling of Gannon.
By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Something, Oakland coach Jon Gruden said, has got to give. Somehow, sometime, at some point during today's AFC Championship Game, something has to give.
There are too many things the Ravens and Raiders do well, too many impact players on both sides of the ball, too many comparative statistics and contrasting streaks to think otherwise.
You can begin analysis of this rich matchup in a number of places, but sometimes first things have to be first.
Such as the Raiders ranking first in rushing this season, gaining 154.4 yards a game.
And the Ravens ranking first in stopping the run, giving up 60.6 yards a game.
"It's going to be a war," Oakland center Barret Robbins said.
Thirty years have passed since the top rushing team met the best run defense in a championship game (1971, Miami runs by Baltimore). But it is not hard to know what to expect.
"A lot of head smacking," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's going to be interesting. We take great pride in our ability to stop the run. We're very upfront about that. That's our primary goal. That's where we begin. And I imagine the Raiders, from what I've seen, they want to establish the run. So let's have at it and see where we go with it."
It should be fun to watch, especially if seeing 300-plus-pound men beat the heck out of each other is your kind of thing.
At times, it's even going to get personal.
"They are intimidating," Oakland Pro Bowl guard Steve Wisniewski said. "If you look at their defensive tackles, they weigh 340 pounds plus. And I don't know that they bathe that regularly."
Countered Sam Adams: "He's yuck mouth. His breath is terrible. You have to play him with a gas mask."
Adams and fellow tackle Tony Siragusa are indeed a, um, large part of the Ravens' success. They clog the middle and keep the blockers from getting to linebacker Ray Lewis, freeing him to make tackle after tackle. Defensive ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett provide containment, and outside linebackers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper lend support.
With their season-long inspired play, the Ravens became the first team to allow fewer than 1,000 yards rushing over a 16-game season, allowed a 16-game low of 2.68 yards a carry and extended their streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 35 games. All that, of course, is part of the amazing accomplishment of allowing a record-low 165 points.
"I don't know if anybody has seen a defense like ours," Billick said in his usual understated fashion. "Until you play our defense, I don't know that you really understand how good they are."
The Raiders counter with an oversized but underappreciated offensive line, a committee of running backs with a variety of styles (though they likely will be without injured Napoleon Kaufman) and the X-factor of quarterback Rich Gannon, whose scrambling and decision-making abilities might be his most dangerous traits.
The Raiders not only led the NFL in rushing, but excelled when it counted, accumulating a league-high 128 first downs on the ground.
"We have to buckle down and do what we've done to get here," tackle Barry Sims said. "We really have to out-physical them and beat them at their own game, which is toughness, and I think we can do it."
Added Gannon: "We're not going to back down."
It sounds a bit like the irresistible force versus the immovable object. "They have to stop us," Adams said. "That's how we approach it. Nobody runs against us, so they have to prove they can beat us."
There is, however, a sliver of concern because the Raiders feature so many different offensive looks and weapons.
"They do a great job of tying people up," Siragusa said. "The backs don't have huge holes when they hit the hole, they make their own holes and find a little crease and bust it out of there where they are almost hidden. That could cause some problems for us."
The Raiders believe they will dictate play, though Gruden did allow for some equivocation.
"They have stood in there and slugged it out with some of the best rushing teams in football and come out victorious," Gruden said. "It's going to be a great challenge for us. I know we'll have to get hats on hats, we'll have to finish our blocks, we'll have to run with forward progress and we're going to have to try to move the pile. We have to try to be as aggressive and assertive as we can, and try to be creative as well.
If there is a key factor, it could be Gruden's patience. If the Ravens stop the Raiders on the ground early, there is a question of how long he'll stay with the run.
"Everyone says be patient and stay with it," Gruden said. "But it's hard to be patient when it's not working. We're going to stick to our running game, but at the same time you've got to get results."
Something has got to give.
- Staff writer John Romano contributed to this report.
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