Marvin Lewis, the Ravens' first-year defensive coordinator, knew there would be Sundays like this.
The Ravens' defense, after playing impressively throughout the preseason and in its season-opening victory over the Oakland Raiders, laid the first egg of its new era in Pittsburgh on Sunday.
After reviewing the mess on videotape -- the missed tackles, blown pass coverages, ineffective blitzes, the big gains surrendered repeatedly on first down -- Lewis sounded eager to burn the evidence of the Ravens' 31-17 defeat.
"As a coach, you can't play the next game quick enough, and our players can't get to next Sunday [in Houston] quick enough, to get the bad taste out of their mouths," said Lewis, who offered the law of averages as one explanation for the Ravens' defensive collapse in the first half. It was a fall that put them in a 28-17 deficit from which they never recovered.
"It wasn't expected, but it wasn't totally unexpected," Lewis said. He then cited an example from the 1995 season, his last in Pittsburgh as linebackers coach. "I saw that [Pittsburgh] defense unravel against the Minnesota Vikings and get run out of the stadium [44-24] at home last year.
"You might expect that from Dallas or San Francisco, not the Vikings. Sooner or later, something like that is going to happen. I know it won't happen here very often."
The Ravens will be playing lots of catch-up football in 1996 if it does happen often.
The demise of the Ravens' defense all started up front, where the Steelers' offensive line, led by outstanding center Dermontti Dawson, decisively won most of the first-half battles.
The Ravens, who could have used veteran right end Anthony Pleasant -- his sprained ankle thrust second-year man Rick Lyle into his first NFL start -- could not gain any surge into the Pittsburgh backfield to disrupt the running game or bother quarterback Mike Tomczak. Nor could they keep Pittsburgh's linemen off the Ravens' linebackers.
And the Ravens' linebackers -- from middle man Ray Lewis to outsiders Mike Caldwell, Mike Croel and Jerrol Williams -- often were a step or two out of position after engaging their blocks. Sometimes the linebackers, who are quicker than they are physical, slid to one side and took themselves out of the play.
No wonder safeties Eric Turner (11 tackles) and Stevon Moore (10), neither of whom distinguished themselves Sunday, were two of the team's top three tacklers. Lewis regrouped to make 10 tackles after being pretty much invisible early.
"We lost a lot more one-on-one battles than we won at the point of attack," backup safety Bennie Thompson said. "I saw a lot of guys trying to do other guys' jobs, and you get in trouble when you do that, especially against an offensive line as good as Pittsburgh's. Our defense just didn't play well. It was about as bad as it looked."
"Too many guys were trying to make the tackle instead of defending their area," Lewis said. "We weren't forcing enough stalemates at the point of attack, and we weren't pushing back enough after their first surge. That's how a 2-yard gain becomes a 6-yard gain."
The Ravens' defense allowed big first-down runs by running backs Jerome Bettis and Erric Pegram, their blitzes fell flat against the Steelers' seven-man protection schemes, and they blew enough coverages to help Tomczak look like Dan Marino. On Tomczak's 20-yard touchdown pass down the middle to Andre Hastings, which gave Pittsburgh a 28-14 lead with three minutes left in the half, the nearest Raven was 5 yards away.
The Ravens hope to get rid of that sour taste Lewis referred to against the Oilers, a team that is playing before lackluster crowds but is still dangerous. Houston has a defense that commands respect, and Heisman Trophy running back Eddie George got the NFL's attention with his 143-yard rushing performance in Sunday's 34-27 victory over Jacksonville.
"He is for real," Ravens defensive line coach Jacob Burney said of George. "We better get our minds straight, right now."
Added Thompson: "We all talked about bouncing back on Monday. If we linger on that Pittsburgh game, we'll come out flat against the Houston Oilers. That's one thing we don't want to do."
Ravens (1-1) vs. Oilers (1-1)
Site: Astrodome, Houston
Time: 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WLIF (101.9 FM), WJFK (1300 AM)
Line: Oilers by 3 1/2
Pub Date: 9/11/96