The Ravens got a chance to make a statement at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, and they announced loud and clear to every football fan between here and Heinz Field that they have the talent and the tenacity to end the Steelers' supremacy in the AFC North. It's a long path to the postseason, but the Ravens put their best foot forward -- once they were done putting it elsewhere -- in the 35-7 victory.
I’ll admit, I didn’t see a lopsided win like this coming: the offense coming together so quickly, the defense humanizing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger like it did. And I don’t care how much purple drank you were chugging down all week -- you didn’t see a 28-point win coming either.
Here are my thoughts -- and there wasn’t much I didn’t like -- as the Ravens beat the Steelers on Sunday by the team’s largest margin of victory in the history of the NFL’s hardest-hitting rivalry.
1. The Ravens offense suffered through no identity crisis on Sunday. All offseason, the team’s brain trust indicated, whether it was through public comments or personnel moves, that they wanted to get back to being a smashmouth team. So it was no surprise when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called a running play on the first play from scrimmage. Ray Rice ran behind fullback Vonta Leach, then around left tackle Bryant McKinnie for a 36-yard gain. It wasn’t a coincidence that two plays later, Anquan Boldin found himself in 1-on-1 coverage on the outside and hauled in a 27-yard touchdown strike from Joe Flacco. When the Ravens force their opponents to respect their running game, they can make them pay through the air -- a recurring theme Sunday.
2. Really, what is there to add about Chuck Pagano? The Ravens defense allowed as many points (seven) as it forced turnovers (the seven takeaways were a Ravens record). Viva la Pagano!
3. The offensive line was the most scrutinized position group going into Week 1, but you don’t have to be an expert in line play to know that this group played well. Look at the statistics (the Ravens averaged 5.5 yards per carry against what is typically one of the NFL’s best run defenses). Look at Flacco’s jersey (crisp and white after he was sacked just once). Look at the body language of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and the Steelers (they appeared to be physically and emotionally defeated). After the game, Ravens coach John Harbaugh admitted that he, too, was worried about the line before the game. I’m guessing those concerns will subside going forward.
4. Whatever Haloti Ngata wants, give it to him. The Pro Bowl defense tackle is still negotiating his monster contract extension with the Ravens, and if I’m his agent, I’m sending Steve Bisciotti and Ozzie Newsome the film from the second half. Ngata forced a fumble when he bowled over Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield and forced two Roethlisberger interceptions by collapsing the pocket (you would chuck the ball away to the other team, too, if Ngata was chasing after you). Ngata might be the league’s best defensive tackle. He deserves to be paid like it, and he will be.
5. If you were still wondering why the Ravens were comfortable with letting Todd Heap go, you probably understood when you saw second-year tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta combine for seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown (and Dickson had a 34-yard reception that was negated by a holding penalty in the first quarter). With Dickson stretching the field vertically and Pitta doing it horizontally, those two are more explosive than Heap. But let’s forget all the "Todd Who?" talk. Heap was a model player and citizen, and if it were up to him, he’d still be here.
6. Ed Reed had two interceptions -- ho hum. Sure, Roethlisberger made them easy, fluttering them right to Reed, but his uncanny ability to always be in the right spot still boggles my mind.
7. Terrell Suggs picked up where he left off from last season’s playoff loss. The linebacker sacked Roethlisberger three times on Sunday -- with the second, he passed Peter Boulware to become the franchise’s all-time sacks leader -- and forced two fumbles while doing so. Suggs has never gone to back-to-back Pro Bowls. But he never seemed to be this focused on football, either.
8. I’m probably not supposed to admit this, but I’m happy for Joe Flacco. Everyone was taking shots at the Ravens quarterback all offseason, and he had to answer questions about his inability to beat Roethlisberger all week. He responded with what was maybe the best game in his four seasons in the NFL, completing 17 of 29 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns. I can’t overlook a symbolic decision the team made before the game. Instead of introducing Ray Lewis and the defense in the season opener against the Steelers on the emotional 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it was the offense that came out of the tunnel. Flacco was the last one out. He didn’t dance to Nelly (trust me, I wish he had). Instead, he ran out onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium like he owned the place and expected to defeat the Steelers by four scores. Then he did it.