Whether it was another Haloti Ngata smackdown or a Ray Rice dive into the end zone, the new-look Ravens authoritatively placed a stamp on this season while moving on from years of losing to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
The Ravens’ 35-7 rout of the Steelers sent a convincing statement to the city’s football fans, the AFC North and the rest of the NFL.
This isn’t the same Ravens team that failed to close out teams. This isn’t the same Ravens offense that failed to deliver big plays against the Steelers. And this definitely isn’t the same Ravens defense that was continually mastered by Roethlisberger.
In a rivalry defined as much by its close scores as its devastating hits, the Ravens spent the fourth quarter hugging on the sideline and celebrating new team marks before an elated sellout crowd of 71,434. The Ravens’ seven forced turnovers are the most in franchise history, and the Ravens’ 28-point margin of victory was their largest in this 34-game series.
With 20 new players on their 53-man roster, the Ravens looked stronger and faster than Pittsburgh, appearing to be a step ahead of the Super Bowl runner-up. From scoring a touchdown on the opening drive to forcing three turnovers in the third quarter, the Ravens grabbed the Steelers by the throat and never let go.
“It’s a great victory,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “The whole thing about ghosts, demons [and] monkeys on your back -- that’s not real to us. This is the 2011 Baltimore Ravens. This is who we are, and now we’re going to find what this football team is going to be about going forward.”
When it comes to the Steelers, the Ravens have more demons and ghosts than most horror movies.
Remember how Joe Flacco couldn’t beat Roethlisberger? He did so for the first time in seven meetings, throwing as many touchdowns (three) as Roethlisberger threw interceptions.
Remember how Rice couldn’t do anything against Pittsburgh last season? He gained more yards on his first carry (36) than he did in any of his three games against the Steelers last season and outgained Pittsburgh in the first half.
Remember how the Ravens let a 21-7 halftime lead slip away in the playoff loss eight months ago? Last season, the Ravens turned the ball over three times in the third quarter. This year, they forced three turnovers in the third quarter.
Ray Lewis told teammates at halftime that their history with the Steelers had no bearing on this game.
“They were saying, ‘We’ve been here before,’” Lewis said. “No, we haven’t been here before. This is a whole new year.”
This was a monumental first step for a Ravens team starting a new chapter. This was their first game since the salary-cap cuts of the franchise’s two leading receivers (Derrick Mason and Todd Heap). This was the first game of the year for the new starting offensive line. This was the first outing for the new-look secondary (safety Ed Reed was the only returning starter).
Said Rice, who finished with 149 total yards (including 107 yards rushing) and two touchdowns: “We know it’s Week One; it’s not the playoffs. But that playoff taste [from last year], now it’s over. We’ve gotten that burden off our shoulders.”
The Ravens put the game away in the opening minutes of the third quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, Ngata leveled Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall and caused a fumble. On the Ravens’ first play after the turnover, Flacco hit tight end Ed Dickson for an 18-yard touchdown.
Ravens punter Sam Koch, who is also the holder, took the snap on the extra point and ran it in untouched for the two-point conversion, putting the Ravens ahead, 29-7.
“It isn’t going to get more physical than that,” said Suggs, who became the Ravens’ all-time sacks leader. “It was domination. It was a great day for the city of Baltimore.”
The Ravens’ defense clinched its first victory over Roethlisberger since 2006 by following the lead of Ngata.
After that forced fumble and recovery in that decisive third quarter, Ngata deflected a Roethlisberger pass that was intercepted by Ray Lewis. Later that quarter, it looked like another vintage Roethlisberger play when he eluded pressure in the red zone and looked to the end zone. This time, instead of a touchdown, it was a turnover as Ed Reed picked him off at the 1-yard line.
“This is definitely the game I wanted to have,” Ngata said. “I just want to keep getting better and better. I just want to keep making more and more plays.”
The Ravens ran out to an early -- but eerily familiar -- lead against the Steelers. Behind Ray Rice, the Ravens took a 21-7 lead into halftime, the same score they had at the intermission of last season’s playoff game at Pittsburgh that they eventually lost.
Rice was so dominant early that he had more total yards (127) than the entire Steelers team (113) in the first half.
The Ravens ambushed Pittsburgh on the opening drive of the game. The first offensive play was a Rice 36-yard run, which set the tone of the game for the running back who is entering the final year of his contract. The first pass by Flacco was a 27-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin.
“When you go down there on the first drive the way we did, it definitely boosts your confidence,” said Flacco, who was 17 of 29 for 224 yards.
The Ravens’ defense flexed its muscle late in the first quarter when Suggs forced Ben Roethlisberger to fumble on his 13 1/2th career sack of the Pittsburgh quarterback. Ngata, who occupied two blockers to allow Suggs to run unblocked up the middle on a stunt, recovered the fumble at the Steelers’ 37-yard line.
After a 29-catch by tight end Dennis Pitta, Rice scored a 1-yard touchdown to stake the Ravens to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Pittsburgh immediately responded with a 10-play, 68-yard drive that featured the return of the Ravens’ three-man pass rush. Given time on third-and-goal, Roethlisberger hit wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
Rice picked up the offense once again at the end of the first half, but this time he provided the boost in the passing game.
After converting a third-and-1 with a 13-yard run, Rice made first downs on the next two third downs with catches. His 25-yard reception put the Ravens in the red zone. And on third-and-6, he faked out Lawrence Timmons to get open and score on an 11-yard catch.
“We got beat up all over the field today,” Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. “The truth of it is we got our butts kicked. It’s incredibly humbling, which obviously we needed at this point. It’ll be interesting to see how we persevere.”
The start of the intense rivalry began with a pre-game ceremony honoring the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. A giant American flag that covered the entire field was held by both Ravens and Steelers players while the national anthem was sung.
But after the coin toss, the Ravens’ focus turned to a team that ended their Super Bowl hopes in two of the past three seasons.
“This is a game we’ve been waiting for since last season,” Boldin said. “We left last season with a bitter taste in our mouths, and that was motivation for us. You still have to give them credit. They’re the AFC North champions until we dethrone them.”