1. This was more than a win. It was a statement. For the first time since 2006, the Ravens were more physical, more athletic, more aggressive and more intense than the Steelers for 60 minutes. The didn't just beat their rival, they made them look old, humbled and bewildered.
When the Ravens trotted out all the standard cliches after the game, pointing out that what happened in the AFC divisional playoffs a year ago didn't matter, and that it had nothing to do with what happened at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, it seemed a little hard to believe them at first. It's obvious this was a cathartic win for this franchise. It would be silly to pretend it wasn't. There was an energy and a buzz in the Ravens locker room after the game that hasn't been there for awhile, and if you saw John Harbaugh during the game, waving his arms and imploring the crowd to get on their feet as The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" blared from the stadium loud speakers, you could tell how much this one meant.
But when you look at it from the Ravens' perspective, there is a lot of truth to the way they claimed to view this game. A lot of media pundits -- I admit I was one of them -- didn't think the Ravens were ready to beat a veteran Steelers squad that has seemingly had their number as long as Ben Roethlisberger was playing quarterback. But in retrospect, that analysis seems a little superficial. The Ravens got faster, younger and more athletic in the off-season, and the Steelers chose to keep a core group of veterans together. Head games don't really matter that much when the other team lines up and physically whips you on both sides of the ball.
This Ravens' team has so many new faces, what happened in Pittsburgh last year is sort of irrelevant. When Baltimore jumped out to an early lead, you couldn't help but think about what happened in the playoffs, but Ray Lewis wasn't having any of it. He told his teammates at halftime, they were going to play the second half like they had no idea what it felt like to hold a 21-7 lead going into the third quarter against the Steelers.
"Everybody was saying 'We've been here before,' " Lewis said. "And I was like 'We haven't been here before, because 2010 is 2010, and 2011 is a whole new year. If you understand it that way, then you understand this is a whole new team."
Steelers safety Ryan Clark said during the preseason that he didn't think the Ravens should be considered the Steelers' rivals because they simply hadn't beaten them enough to be considered their equal. And in some respects, he might have been right. Animosity alone doesn't make for a great rivalry. But it was interesting -- and maybe a little telling, in retrospect -- how the Steelers couldn't seem to resist yapping about the Ravens throughout the lockout. They took a few digs at Joe Flacco, they downplayed the suggestion that the Ravens were close to being their equal, and they seemed to be commenting an awful lot on a team they had beaten repeatedly. They showed up in Baltimore Sunday looking like a team that just assumed it could do what it always does against the Ravens -- fluster Flacco, bottle up Ray Rice, and make one or two plays at the end to win it.
By the time they realized this wasn't the same old Ravens -- I think it was probably the moment Ed Dickson streaked past Troy Polamalu for a touchdown catch -- all that was left was an implosion. Roethlisberger looked like he just wanted to hurry up and get the game over with, and Polamalu completely lost his composure and tried to twist Rice's leg at the bottom of a pile.
"I may have lost it a little bit, which is not a good example, especially to my family and to the fans and children," Polamalu said. "The truth is, we got our butts kicked today."
Maybe the Steelers will regroup, and maybe they'll be able to fight through the malaise that tends to dog the team that lost the Super Bowl the previous year. But even if they do recover, they're likely going to be faced with an unpleasant reality: This does not look like a Ravens team that beats itself, or implodes in key moments. This looks like a team that punches you in the mouth, and dares you to match-up with the speed and strength they have at nearly every position.
It's just one game, sure. It would be prudent not to overreact. But all the talk of the Ravens mental hangups -- the stuff that has held them back the last two years -- seems pretty irrelevant right now. There is talent at almost every position. Some of it's green, and some of it graying, but there is certainly talent. And that is a scary reality for the rest of the NFL.
2. This is the year Terrell Suggs stakes his case to be called the best defensive player in the NFL.
When the Ravens gave Suggs a record-breaking contract three years ago, he became a convenient target for fans during a a frustrating 9-7 season. He started the season a little out of shape because he was slow recovering from off-season surgery, and then he was injured when Brady Quinn put a helmet on his knee after an interception. Fans complained that Suggs was lazy, that he never deserved a big contract in the first place, and that he was never going to be the premier pass rusher Baltimore needed.
A lot of that criticism was foolish, but some of it was fair. Suggs was too talented to not put everything together, and about midway through 2010, everything started to click. He's too strong and too fast for most tackles, and when the Ravens move him around, make him hard to account for, he's a force of nature. He makes it almost impossible to run stretch plays, you can't leave him unblocked if you run away from him (because he's fast enough to run down the ball carrier from the backside) and he can even drop into coverage if you want to blitz a corner or a safety. We're now seeing the culmination of his skills on a consistent basis after he had three sacks and forced two fumbles against one of the hardest quarterbacks in the game to bring down. And if you love defense, it's a beautiful thing to watch.
"He’s one of the premier defensive players that everybody gameplans around," Harbaugh said. "He gets blocked every different kind of way a guy can get blocked, from one game to the next, when you watch it. He still finds a way to make plays. Plus, he’s one of the best leaders I’ve been around. This guy is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around."
That may not have always been the case, and Suggs is the first to admit it. He'll always be a prankster, a talker and a free spirit, but he understands, too, the Ravens need more from him.
"After nine years, you've got to grow up sometime," Suggs said. "I was always the big kid, but Ray [Lewis] said he needed me to take my place along side him and [Ed Reed]. I think that's going to be big for us this year. We're the General, the Lieutenant and the Captain."
If Suggs isn't named Defensive Player of the Year this year, then hopefully it's because Haloti Ngata steals the award away from him. Both of them should make opposing coaches lay awake night, sweating, trying to figure out ways to block them.
3. There may still be growing pains, but I think Sunday made it clear that cutting ties with Derrick Mason and Todd Heap was a good thing for this team and for Joe Flacco.
We've spent a lot of time in this space the last three years talking about whether or not something was holding Flacco back from reaching his potential. And while I think it would be unfair to pin any kind of blame on Heap or Mason -- they were warriors who played through injuries and bled for the team, and they should be remembered fondly -- I think it's going to be good for Flacco to have neither of them as a security blanket this year.
The offensive line was great on Sunday, and we'll get to their impact in a moment. But it was fun to watch Flacco's eyes scan the field against the Steelers, and then throw passes to receivers as they were coming out of their breaks. He threw balls to Anquan Boldin, Rice and Dickson with a clear expectation they were going to create separation from their defender as the ball was coming out of his hand. Though typically sure-handed, Heap and Mason just didn't give Flacco that luxury. As I said above, I think the best play of the game, the moment when I realized everything might be different this year, was the touchdown to Dickson because it featured two things the Ravens couldn't do last year: an effective play-action fake, and a throw to the tight end over the middle where he simply out-ran the safety.
Flacco has been subjected to plenty of criticism the last two years, and lord knows I've penned my share of it. I certainly don't take any of it back, because I think that's all part of the process an NFL quarterback has to go through. But I'm more than willing to say I think this was the best game I've seen him play as a Raven. This was the Joe Flacco we've all been waiting for. His tempo was better, he didn't throw a single pass of his back foot, and he put the ball in spots where his receivers had a chance to run after the catch.
I've often felt like the sect of Ravens fans who got so angry when someone said or wrote Flacco needed to play better were missing the larger point. Flacco HAS been a good quarterback. He's far and away the best this franchise has seen, and no one was suggesting otherwise. But it's OK to have high expectations for him, to want more from him, because he clearly has the talent to meet those expectations.
"There's always going to be critics," Flacco said, when asked if he felt like he'd proved something Sunday. "Turn around, 10 weeks down the road, something might happen, and OK, it's back again. Maybe for the time being, but I doubt it will last too long."
Flacco is right. Eventually, he will be criticized at some point down the road. And it's not always going to be fair. And you can always say "The team around him needs to play better too!" But that's life as an NFL quarterback. It's an incredible burden to bear, probably the toughest one in sports, but that's why we lionize the great ones.
4. This offensive line might come together a lot quicker that we thought.
It took all of one play for me to realize my expectations for Bryant McKinnie's debut as Raven were a bit too modest. The Ravens ran a simple stretch play to the left side, and McKinnie not only shoved James Harrison down inside, into a pile of bodies, he also showed some nimble feet, getting to the second level and sealing off James Farrior. Dickson made a nice kickout block on Polamalu, and Rice darted through a huge hole for a 36 yard gain.
When the Ravens signed McKinnie, I figured it would be at least two or three weeks before he was making second-level blocks on linebackers, considering that he allegedly weighed 400 pounds in Minnesota. But he admitted after the game he feels motivated to prove Minnesota made a mistake by letting him go, and that the Ravens franchise is a better fit for his personality.
"I was pretty fired up on that play," McKinnie said. "A lot was going through my head going into this game. [Minnesota] tried to make it seem like I lost it. Well, I guess I found it in Baltimore. It's good motivation. I like the chemistry here with the players and the coaches. They let you be yourself and play loose. That's something I like. It was time for a change anyway."
McKinnie got most of the attention in the post game, but the whole unit deserved to take a bow. Flacco really wasn't touched until late in the second half, and he frequently had time to go through multiple reads before releasing the ball. On Rice's 1-yard touchdown run, Marshall Yanda absolutely obliterated the defensive tackle lined up across from him, giving Rice plenty of space to slip across the goal line, another example of how the short-yardage run game appears to be better already.
5. Even if you've criticized Cam Cameron in the past, and plan to criticize him in the future, be a big enough person to acknowledge he did an excellent job Sunday of using Ray Rice, not only giving him the ball on the ground, but also in the passing game to create match-up problems.
Rice is such a difficult player to handle in the open field because he changes directions so quickly. In that respect, being undersized probably helps him because he has a low center of gravity and can accelerate out of his cuts as fast as anyone in football. The Ravens had trouble getting him through the initial hole last year and into the second level against linebackers, the place where he can do the most damage, but that wasn't a problem Sunday.
"We didn't run no trick plays, we just executed," Rice said. "Outside zone left, outside zone right, play action. We didn't need to put in anything special, we just needed to do what we do."
Cameron said the Ravens tried to throw Rice a couple screens early in the game and realized the Steelers were shadowing him. That helped Baltimore's pass protection, and allowed them to take some shots down the field. And when the Steelers started dropping more guys into coverage, they got the ball to Rice on dump offs and by lining him up out wide.
"Ray is a match-up problem for people," Cameron said. "But he's been playing pretty good since the first day he got here. He always plays pretty well against these guys."
In the past, though, he didn't have nearly as many opportunities. Rice got the the ball in his hands 23 times on Sunday -- 19 carries for 107 yards, and four catches for 42 yards. In the two previous games against Pittsburgh, including the playoff loss, he touched it a total of 30 times.
Rice didn't particularly mind that the Steelers left him with a noticeable gash on his neck. In fact, he wore it like a badge of honor.
"Look at the scar on my neck," he said. "It's a physical game."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun