Note: This article originally appeared on September 11, 2011.
The Baltimore Ravens handed the Pittsburgh Steelers their asses.
There, I said it.
And boy did it feel good, and strange, for Ravens fans who witnessed this 35-7 Ravens beat down of their division rivals, eight months removed from their gut-wrenching playoff loss to the Steelers to complete the 2010 campaign.
A win this decisive definitively answered so many offseason questions about how the Ravens would respond.
Could Joe Flacco finally overcome his 0-6 all-time record against a Ben Roethlisberger led Steelers team? Not only did Flacco overcome it, he pulverized it, taking advantage of the 7-0 turnover margin his defense handed him.
The decisive win also soundly answered questions about how well Baltimore’s freshly minted offensive line would hold up against the Steelers ferocious blitz packages and their notoriously stout run defense.
It answered the offseason question whether coordinator Cam Cameron could properly utilize his new weapons on offense – could he rise to the occasion with his coaching job on the line?
And check off the list any questions over how well defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s more aggressive schemes would fare in the toughest competitive environment. The answer each case was a resounding yes.
The Ravens out-hit, out-ran, out-coached, out-hustled, out-thought, out-fought, and frankly out-front-officed their long-time divisional foes.
In the week leading up to this game Ravens head coach John Harbaugh preached patience to anyone who would listen. After all, with so many new additions and wrinkles—and so little time to prepare–he asked fans to expect better play with each passing week his team is together.
Getting better every week is a very scary thought for the rest of the AFC to ponder, given the way this Ravens team started their 2011 campaign.
Joe Flacco was better than the numbers suggest. And the numbers weren’t bad. He completed 17 of 29 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Given better pass protection than anytime in recent memory against a Steelers defense, Flacco moved around noticeably better in the pocket and made pinpoint precise throws. And clutch throws, with ten first downs through the air. None was more clutch than his first throw of year: a heady 27-yard touchdown to a well covered Anquan Boldin. He also showed tremendous touch on a lob over safety Troy Polamalu to Ed Dickson streaking across the back of the end zone.
RUNNING BACK: A
Ray Rice looked he couldn’t be tackled at times when juking with the ball in the open field. He pasted 100 rushing yards on the Steelers defense before the third quarter was out, and left mop-up duty to the veteran Ricky Williams, who ran hard and willingly between the tackles. Any question over the value of signing fullback Vonta Leach over the departed Le’Ron McClain was answered when Leach cold-cocked Brett Keisel in the hole on the first play of the game to allow Rice to run for over 30 yards. Leach also looked dangerous as a pass catcher, although he dropped one pass in the flat.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B
Anquan Boldin was a tremendous target, making the most of four catches for 74 yards and a TD catch that required him to run stride-for-stride with Bryant McFadden and fight for the ball as it dropped in. He did have one sliding drop of a would-be first down. Lee Evans looked a bit out of synch with his quarterback, but was effective in clearing out underneath routes thanks to his deep speed.
With Tandon Doss inactive, Torrey Smith saw a good bit of playing time. While he wasn’t targeted, he blocked well downfield.
TIGHT ENDS: A
Ed Dickson made it much easier to say goodbye to Todd Heap. He was Flacco’s top target, with five catches, and demonstrated the value of speed in the passing game by outrunning Polamalu on a diving touchdown grab. He made an even better catch in traffic for what would have been 30 more yards, but it was called back on a questionable holding call. It was also encouraging to see improved blocking on the line of scrimmage from the second-year tight end. Dennis Pitta looked very fluid catching drag routes and out patterns and then turning up field for solid gains.
There were so many questions about new left tackle Bryant McKinnie’s conditioning, and his readiness to step into a foreign Ravens offense. He answered them all with flying colors. On his first play as a Raven he knocked the man in front of him down the line, released to the second level and eclipsed linebacker James Farrior’s vision as Ray Rice scampered around his mauling block. For a man who was supposed to be too fat to be ready to play the game this season, he simply wore out highly regarded, physical James Harrison.
Meanwhile, Michael Oher, who had struggled as a left tackle, looked dominant on the right side, with a very solid game. The tandem only gave up one late sack.
INTERIOR LINE: A-
No one had seen Matt Birk play all preseason as he worked his way through offseason knee issues. It was concerning enough that the Ravens signed ten-year veteran center Andre Gurode for insurance. Birk did a decent job, particularly in pass protection. He was pushed around a little by nose guard Casey Hampton and seemed to tire in the heat as the game wore on, leading to a holding call. It bears watching. Guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda were outstanding, aside from a holding call on Grubbs to erase a completion. Yanda destroyed defensive lineman Aaron Smith to spring Rice for a touchdown.
The debut of rookie Jimmy Smith at corner was postponed by a sprained ankle he suffered on the opening kick. In his place Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworth survived, mostly by playing off the speedy Mike Wallace with the lead and allowing him to make a ton of catches underneath. On the opposite side Cary Williams had a fantastic day, breaking well on the ball while contributing some textbook tackling.
Lardarius Webb played very well out of the nickel spot, shutting down Hines Ward as he tried to dance free in the Ravens’ secondary. Webb also had a team-high 11 tackles on a day, with the Steelers only attempting 15 rushes.
Ed Reed was back to being Ed Reed, making two key interceptions of Roethlisberger in the middle of the field and dropping a third opportunity on a misguided fluttering pass. A healthy Reed also looked like a more willing tackler, with six takedowns on the day–plus a hard break-up of an underneath throw to Ward and nearly stuffing Rashard Mendenhall behind the line as Cory Redding cleaned up.
Tom Zbikowski badly missed an open field tackle of Mike Wallace for a long gain. The aggressive Bernard Pollard was nearly suckered by Ward into a personal foul after the whistle.
Ray Lewis whiffed attempting to bring down Mendenhall in the hole to allow an early nine-yard gain. And he may be a step slow in pass coverage. But he’s still Ray Lewis and that means chasing behind a receiver to strip the ball for and coming down with an interception on two of the Ravens takeaways.
Terrell Suggs was relentless getting to Roethlisberger, no better than a simple stunt allowed him to run free for a sack and forced fumble on the first of the Steelers turnovers. His head slap celebration was even better. He also slapped the ball out of Roethlisberger’s raised arm to cause the seventh and final turnover.
Brendon Ayanbadejo rotated into a few third-down situations and got a solid rib-shot on Roethlisberger as he released a pass for the final turnover of the day. Dannell Ellerbe also looked quicker applying blitz pressure. The play of the day may have been the de-cleating, slobber-knocking shot Jarret Johnson applied to Hines Wards chin as he tried to scrape down the line to release into coverage.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Haloti Ngata simply took over the game in the second half. He destroyed Mendenhall behind the line on a shaky hand-off to start the second half, and then just fell on the loose ball. After the Ravens converted that turnover into points, he then deflected a pass on the next Steelers play from scrimmage, which dropped into Ray Lewis’ hands. There was simply no running away from the big lineman.
Other than a 23-yard run by Mendenhall when Cory Redding got caught up inside, Steelers running backs only managed 34 yards on 14 carries, thanks to a well-rested rotation of Ravens linemen that included a nice performance by rookie Pernell McPhee who batted down a pass near the goal line. Redding will have to play with better consistency to hold onto his starting job.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Lardarius Webb needs to field punts more confidently, as he allowed too many to hit the turf and roll. The normally deadly Sam Koch sent one 60+ yard punt into the end zone and then overcompensated with a thirty yarder to the Steelers thirty. He made one of the more interesting plays of the day on a fake extra point, rising to catch the snap from Morgan Cox and running it off left guard for two.
LaQuan Williams stood out for a nice block to spring Webb to the 35 on the opening kick. Veteran Brandon Ayanbadejo was flagged for a poor horse collar tackle covering a punt.
The Steelers were badly outcoached. It was surprising to see the Steelers outworked so clearly and shell shocked so easily. It’s a credit to the Ravens coaches, who had their team ready to execute despite so many new faces on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Cam Cameron scripted a perfect opening drive that immediately put the Steelers on their heels. There was no better illustration of the value of Chuck Pagano’s aggressive, blitzing scheme than on the Steelers’ lone touchdown. On that play Pagano got away from the pressure, rushed three and allowed Roethlisberger time to pick apart the secondary. Pagano quickly got back to harassing Roethlisberger, and the newlywed quarterback looked uncomfortable the rest of the way.
The officials had their hands full. As the Steelers fell behind, they got testy and attempted to bait the Ravens into making costly retaliatory mistakes. Despite multiple official knock downs – the collateral damage of a few scrums between these bitter rivals, they kept their cool and managed the game well.
The zebras made a bad call on McKinnie for holding as he drove Harrison into the ground and they could have easily flagged Ike Taylor for coming through the back of Lee Evans on a third and short play. There was also a very questionable personal foul call against Cory Redding trying to make a tackle after a potential fumble recovered by Pittsburgh that was eventually ruled an incompletion.
But those are calls you can forgive when the outcome was never in doubt. Think about that. The Ravens were never really challenged by the Steelers, from the opening gun to the Gator Aid bath.
Quite a statement by the Ravens to the rest of the AFC.