In validating their preseason billing as title contenders, the Ravens followed a familiar script: a swarming defense and a staggering running attack.
What they could have done without was the theatrics.
Moments after recording their largest margin of victory in this fierce AFC North rivalry, the Ravens (1-1) could only scratch their heads. That is, the ones who waited until the final whistle before ripping off their helmets.
"You can definitely see better from us," Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "We're so close."
The Ravens' running game was relentless in racking up 172 yards, including two touchdowns from Jamal Lewis and a career-high 76 yards from backup Chester Taylor. Their defense was defiant in harassing Pittsburgh's quarterbacks, forcing three critical turnovers and keeping the Steelers pinned in their territory for all but one possession through the first three quarters.
This potential statement game appeared to end with an exclamation point - cornerback Chris McAlister's 51-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the home-opening win with 2:56 left to play - but was marred by several question marks.
The Ravens showed a distressing lack of composure in getting flagged 10 times for 123 yards. Equally disturbing were the injuries to tight end Todd Heap and defensive back Deion Sanders, both of whom were sidelined the entire second half.
Sanders is day-to-day with a hamstring strain, and Heap will be "at the very least questionable" for Sunday's game at Cincinnati, a team official said. Heap, the team's leading receiver the past two seasons, could miss a couple of games with an ankle injury.
"It hurts a lot. Todd is my go-to guy," said quarterback Kyle Boller, who threw for 98 yards on 10-for-18 passing and ran for 34 yards. "Hopefully he'll be back very soon."
What won't be forgotten anytime soon was how Heap was treated after spraining his right ankle.
In obvious pain and favoring his injured leg, Heap still lined up so the Ravens could spike the ball to stop the clock near the end of the first half, only to be shoved to the ground by Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter. Heap was helped by trainers back to the locker room, where X-rays were negative.
"That's Porter," Jamal Lewis said. "He's a cheap guy. Would you expect anything different from him? That's low, but we'll see him again."
The Ravens inflicted just as much damage to themselves in rolling out to a 20-0 lead early in the third quarter, a margin that could have been more severe.
Kevin Johnson's illegal motion penalty negated a 39-yard touchdown off a flea flicker. Sanders' flag for pulling off his helmet offset his exciting 23-yard punt return. And Ray Lewis' unnecessary roughness penalty helped Pittsburgh's final touchdown drive.
In total, the Ravens were called for six major infractions (15 yards or more), from Sanders and Ed Reed taking off their helmets to offensive line coach Jim Colletto tripping an official on the sideline.
Ravens coach Brian Billick offered some sobering words for a team that went from a humiliating season-opening loss in Cleveland to a four-way tie for first place in the AFC North with the Steelers, Browns and Bengals.
"We have a big challenge to find some personal discipline," Billick said. "That's going to be a real focus for us because we've done some dumb things."
The Ravens set the tone early, rushing 89 yards on an opening drive punctuated by Jamal Lewis' 3-yard run.
After that, defense was the order of the day as the offense didn't produce a first down in six of its final 11 drives.
Blitzing cornerback Gary Baxter came from behind to grab the cocked arm of Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox early in the third quarter to force a fumble, which was returned 24 yards by Terrell Suggs to the Steelers' 1-yard line. The play sidelined Maddox for the rest of the game with an elbow injury and set up Lewis' short dash, increasing the Ravens' advantage to 20-0.
Linebacker Adalius Thomas then picked off Ben Roethlisberger's second career pass to end a drive at midfield, and McAlister finished off the three-turnover second half by running back an interception for a touchdown for the third time of his career.
"I still don't think the message was really sent," McAlister said about the defense's dominance. "But we improved a lot compared to where we left off in Cleveland."
The shutout was ruined early in the fourth quarter, when a third-and-12 pass went off the hands of Reed and directly to Steelers receiver Hines Ward. The 58-yard pass was the longest of the day and paved the way for a 3-yard scoring pass from Roethlisberger to Antwaan Randle El.
The Steelers later took advantage of the Ravens' prevent defense to tack on another touchdown and cut the margin to 23-13 with 6:10 left. McAlister then put the game out of reach with his score while Reed could only contemplate about what he let go out of his grasp.
"It just slipped through my hands," Reed said. "It was the easiest thing I have ever seen in my life. I saw myself down the sideline to the end zone. I am better than that. It won't happen again."
Reed wasn't the only Raven who didn't perform as expected.
Jamal Lewis was held in check for the second straight week, gaining 62 yards on 24 carries. The reigning NFL rushing champion hasn't produced a run longer than 12 yards and hasn't averaged more than 3 yards per carry.
With a thinning receiving corps, the Ravens probably will need a stronger game from Lewis.
Asked if he was satisfied with his production, he said, "Oh yeah, I'm taking pressure off the quarterback. Defenses are keying in on the run and on me. That gives him a chance to open things and throw down the field. I'm not concerned with the big yards or the 150-, 200-yard game. We went out and got a real good win. So, I have to happy with it."
Inside the Ravens' celebratory locker room, Billick handed the game ball to Steve Bisciotti, who won his first game as the team's principal owner.
It marked the start of a new era as well as a rededication to their ultimate goal.
"If there was ever an important game in Week 2, this was it," Bisciotti said. "I'm just proud of how this group of players and coaches responded. I think they have the ability to follow through with what we planned on doing this year."
Ravens' defense bounces back
After a couple of second-half breakdowns in last week's loss to Cleveland, the Ravens' defense responded with a strong statement in yesterday's first half.
The Steelers' statistics for the first 30 minutes:
Total plays: 23
First downs: 5
Total yards: 106
Time of poss.: 9:56
Third-down efficiency: 1-for-6
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