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  Ravens Start Anew, End Badly

 Baltimore's Jim Harbaugh walks off the field holding his injured finger. (AP)
By Ken Denlinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 1998; Page C6

BALTIMORE, Sept. 6 – Everything was so upbeat before the Baltimore Ravens' first regular season game in their new stadium today. Fireworks. A civic lovefest that featured politicians, workers and youngsters holding hands in a line that stretched from one end zone of Ravens Stadium at Camden Yards to the other. Even the four-jet flyover that symbolizes an event's significance.

Then came Matt Stover's turn to perform, on the opening kickoff.

"Teams feed off the kicker," he said. That effort was terrible. And a team that had gone unbeaten during the preseason looked as though it had gotten together in the parking lot moments before the national anthem, and suffered a defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers more embarrassing than the 20-13 score indicates.

Compounding errors from usually reliable veterans – among them wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, left guard Wally Williams and long snapper Harper Le Bel – was quarterback Jim Harbaugh breaking his right ring finger midway through the second quarter and missing the rest of the game.

The injury occurred when Harbaugh's hand hit the turf after a blitz by cornerback Carnell Lake. Neither medication nor assorted taping procedures allowed Harbaugh to grip the ball firmly enough for more than soft tosses.

He is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium, but calls himself "a fast healer."

Ravens Coach Ted Marchibroda also said wide receiver Michael Jackson (6 catches, 51 yards) might have broken a rib.

Harbaugh's counterpart, Kordell Stewart, overcame first-half misery (two interceptions and a 15-yard sack) with plays that produced both Pittsburgh touchdowns – a one-yard dive into the end zone and a 20-yard pass to a diving Charles Johnson.

Ravens backup quarterback Eric Zeier completed 16 of 27 passes for 240 yards and a 64-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Lewis with 3 minutes 38 seconds left that proved to be the final points. Pittsburgh ran down the clock to 27 seconds-and punter Josh Miller then pinned the Ravens on their 4-yard line.

The Ravens were emotional after the game, none more than Marchibroda. "It hurts," he said. "It hurts a great deal. We worked so hard in the offseason – and this meant so much."

The problems started when Stover's opening kickoff went out of bounds. Instead of possibly being pinned inside their 20-yard line, the Steelers had the ball at their 40 and soon were en route to a field goal.

Le Bel caused at least two of Stover's three missed field goals and a fumble by punter Kyle Richardson that Pittsburgh turned into a five-yard touchdown and a 13-3 lead late in the third period.

A nine-year veteran who has snapped under pressure more fierce than today's, Le Bel was signed when Brian Kinchen injured a thumb early in training camp. Le Bel was kept on the roster after the final cuts because of his familiarity with new holder Richardson and Stover.

"The looks I received [from frustrated] teammates on the sideline, the stares, all definitely were deserved," said Le Bel, whose job here could well be in jeopardy now that Kinchen is healthy. "But I have a lot of faith in myself."

Baltimore's defense held Steelers running back Jerome Bettis to 41 yards rushing on 23 carries. Stewart had just 173 yards on 27 passing attempts.

Stewart would have had a third interception, but cornerback Rod Woodson couldn't hold the ball on what would have been a certain touchdown after the Steelers gained their 3-0 lead.

But the Steelers also missed on a seemingly cinch touchdown, when Stewart missed Johnson, who was wide open at the Baltimore 25 early in the second quarter.

Lewis had two critical dropped passes. One was at the Pittsburgh 5 on a long pass by Zeier and another was near midfield just before Le Bel's one-hop snap that sailed through Richardson's legs and set up Pittsburgh's momentum-swinging touchdown.

Williams, who missed three weeks of training camp because the Ravens designated him their franchise player instead of signing him to a long-term contract, twice flinched before the snap on third-and-short situations. One was at the Pittsburgh 19.

"This still is a good team," defensive end Michael McCrary said. "And good teams are able to recover."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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