TAMPA, Fla. — Between a punishing, opportunistic defense, a composed quarterback with something to prove and an occasionally brutish running game, the Baltimore Ravens reclaimed a semblance of their old bullying brand of football.
Returning to the scene of their greatest triumph at the stadium where they won Super Bowl XXXV, the Ravens didn�t resemble the outfit that entered Sunday with an 11-game road losing streak that was the longest in the NFL.
This rendition may have reshaped a few opinions by methodically dismantling the defending NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a 27-0 shutout that marks the Ravens� first shutout since a December 2003 win over the Cleveland Browns.
�Whatever we had to do to get the monkey off our back,� said linebacker Bart Scott after winning outside M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since a Nov. 14, 2004 overtime victory over the New York Jets. �When you�re not a very good team, you don�t win on the road. It makes a statement to the NFL that we can come out on the road and dominate a great football team like that.
�We haven�t earned the right to call ourselves a good team yet. We�re a team that�s striving to be better every week.�
Beyond the bone-bruising hits unleashed by linebackers Ray Lewis and Scott and three interceptions that directly led to 17 points, the offense pulled its weight for a change by immediately pushing around the Buccaneers on the opening drive of the season.
Coasting into the end zone untouched on a 4-yard touchdown run, running back Jamal Lewis (78 yards on 18 carries) capped a 14-play, 80-yard drive that lasted a staggering 9 minutes and 16 seconds. It was the first score on a season-opening drive in the franchise�s history.
�That�s what you dream about,� said left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, who cleared gaping pathways along with left guard Edwin Mulitalo for Lewis� 34 yards on the first drive. �That really set the tone.�
During that decisive march, new franchise quarterback Steve McNair made his imprint, too. He completed 4 of 5 passes for 44 yards, including a key 3rd-and-7 he converted with a 15-yard pass to former Tennessee Titans teammate Derrick Mason.
�It would have been disappointing if we would have gone nine minutes and not scored,� said McNair, who finished the game 17 of 27 for 181 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 94.8 passer rating. �I was telling guys in the huddle, �We don�t work this hard not to score six points.�
�The guys did a magnificent job. We were able to mix things and keep the defense off-balance to where they didn�t know where we were coming from.�
The defense clearly rattled Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, with cornerback Chris McAlister returning the first of Simms� three interceptions 60 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
The pain wasn�t nearly over for Simms, who was body-slammed twice by Scott for sacks and once by Lewis on another emphatic hit.
�Why run all the way there just to lay a lollipop on the guy?� Scott said. �When you get there, you want to put something on him to remember you. You wear down a team just like a boxer. You hit a boxer in the early rounds with good body shots. By the end, they run out of steam.�
Meanwhile, the Ravens� defense turned running back Carnell �Cadillac� Willliams, last year�s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, into a non-factor. He was limited to just 22 yards on eight carries as Baltimore held Tampa Bay to 142 net yards and a 2.8 average gain per play.
�We had the mindset to play our type of football,� said Ray Lewis, who missed the last 10 games of last season with a hamstring injury that required surgery. �Seriously, if you know football, you know we are going to be a hard team to beat. One of the reasons is we have the personnel.
�I�m excited about the togetherness. Nothing is separating us. Right now, we�re playing at a very high level.�
McAlister�s feat was nearly imitated by brawny rookie defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a 6-foot-4, 340-pound first-round draft pick.
Ngata intercepted a pass deflected by Scott and lumbered 60 yards upfield to set up a field goal. However, he absolutely ran out of gas and stepped out of bounds at the Tampa 9-yard line despite a convoy of blockers in front of him.
�It felt good for about 30 yards and then I just died out because it felt like something big jumped on my back,� Ngata said. �Now, I know I belong here. Now, I know I�m a part of it.�
Added Scott: �You can�t expect an 18-wheeler to go technically two cities for him. I�m just proud that he stayed up and we didn�t have to carry him off to the sidelines.�
Safety Ed Reed intercepted another Simms pass in the fourth quarter, leaping over wide receiver Michael Clayton.
The closest Tampa Bay came to scoring was a 4th-and-goal at the Ravens’ 4-yard line in the third quarter, but Lewis batted away Simms’ throw intended for running back Michael Pittman to preserve the shutout.
When asked if he knew that Simms had the most passes deflected of any quarterback last season, Lewis replied: �Of course, we watch ESPN, too.�
Winning this game at pirate-themed Raymond James Stadium before 65,087, brought back warm memories for Lewis, the Most Valuable Player in the Ravens’ Super Bowl win over the New York Giants.
"This stadium has been good to me, it really has," Lewis said. "I will never complain about my record here in this stadium."
The Ravens officially christened the McNair era in the fourth quarter with a lobbed 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Wilcox. Despite playing against the top-ranked defense from last season that features elite pass rusher Simeon Rice, McNair was only sacked once and that was his own fault.
The 2003 NFL Co-Most Valuable Player lost the grip on the ball while dropping back to pass and fell on the fumble. He rarely threw deep and several of his passes were off-target and ricocheted off the ground.
Two drives deep in Tampa Bay territory stalled and Baltimore had to settle for 20-yard and 42-yard field goals from kicker Matt Stover.
Overall, though, McNair appeared to answer questions about whether he has something left in his 32-year-old body as he launches his 11th season.
�This team knows what I can do,� said McNair, who was traded by the Titans following a nasty contract impasse. �It�s people from the outside looking in that don�t know what I can do. I feel I�m still able to play the game at a high level.
�This is the type of football we�re going to play. We�re going to play physical and fast on defense and we�re going to run the ball and mix you up on offense. This team is on its way.�
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times.
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