PITTSBURGH - The Ravens took a sizable first step toward validating the impression that they're one of the National Football League's coming powers yesterday, dominating the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 16-0 win at hot, humid Three Rivers Stadium.
After a hectic off-season that included linebacker Ray Lewis' murder trial, which ended with his guilty plea to obstruction of police, and several high-profile free-agent signings, the Ravens got back to football and won their season opener for only the second time in their five-year history, shutting out a team that has haunted them.
"Winning on the road is a tough thing to do in this league," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "To win on the road with a shutout, that's something you have to feel really good about."
The win improved the Ravens' record to 6-3 since the midpoint of last season and set up a marquee home opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars at PSINet Stadium on Sunday. The Jaguars, who won the AFC Central title last season and opened the 2000 season with a 27-7 win over the Cleveland Browns yesterday, have never lost to the Ravens.
"There isn't a team on our schedule that I don't think we can beat," Billick said.
The Ravens certainly won't be an easy touch if their defense continues to play at the level it reached yesterday. The Steelers gained only 30 yards on 18 rushes, missed on 22 of 39 pass attempts and were pushed back dramatically after driving to a first-and-goal at the Ravens' 1-yard line in the fourth quarter - their only serious scoring threat.
Take away that one drive and the Steelers totaled 138 yards of offense, as opposed to 336 for the Ravens.
"We have a good defense. I don't think that's a secret anymore," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "We have a lot of guys who just know what they're doing and fly around the field and meet at the ball."
Woodson, a former Steeler, was a defensive standout with five tackles, as was end Rob Burnett, who had four tackles and a sack and forced a fumble.
Lewis, back on the field after his tumultuous off-season, had three tackles. Pittsburgh fans booed Lewis every time his name was mentioned on the public address system.
The shutout loss was the first for the Steelers at home since their season opener 11 years ago, a span encompassing 93 regular-season and playoff games at Three Rivers.
"I played on some great defenses here" as a Steeler, Woodson said, "but this one could be as good or better."
Marvel Smith, a rookie offensive lineman for the Steelers, could only shake his head after struggling to survive the Ravens' furious blitzing.
"That was my first game, and they're pretty much the best the NFL has to offer," Smith said.
The Ravens' offense wasn't quite up to that caliber, producing just one touchdown despite controlling the ball for almost 10 more minutes than the Steelers.
"We need to do better. Sixteen points isn't going to win in a lot of weeks," tight end Shannon Sharpe said.
Still, there were numerous positives on offense. Veteran running back Priest Holmes was superb, gaining 119 yards on 27 rushing attempts. Receiver Qadry Ismail caught seven passes for 102 yards and scored the game's only touchdown on a 53-yard catch from quarterback Tony Banks in the first quarter.
Banks, who has struggled to avoid turnovers in his career, played an error-free game.
After the game, the Ravens peeled off their sweat-soaked uniforms and laughed about the heat.
"I felt like a turkey roasting out there," defensive end Michael McCrary said.
But he and his teammates were looking forward to a happy flight home and then a week of practice leading up to one of the most-anticipated games in Baltimore since the NFL's return in 1996.
"When you're winning," Woodson said, "everything is better."