PITTSBURGH - The Ravens are for real.
Regardless of losing, 23-20, last night to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they came into hostile territory with a rookie quarterback and a lot of inexperienced offensive players and took the defending AFC North champions to overtime.
A year ago, the Ravens would have come unglued if they gave up two touchdowns within seconds in the third period to lose a lead, but they rallied behind quarterback Joe Flacco in the fourth.
We all wanted to know whether the Ravens were for real after beating Cincinnati and Cleveland in the first two games, but there are no more questions. This is a solid football team with a good coaching staff, a strong defense and a developing offense. The Ravens are only going to get better, and if they remain healthy, will play a role in shaping the playoff picture. No, I'm not saying they are playoff-bound, but the Ravens gained respect around the league last night.
For a team that lacks a major weapon, Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron gets the maximum out of this offense. Imagine if he had a legitimate deep threat at wide receiver.
There were a couple of times that the Ravens outsmarted the Steelers, especially in the first half when they had field position. On third-and-three from the Steelers' 25-yard line midway in the second quarter, the Ravens went with an empty backfield and then brought running back Willis McGahee in motion behind Flacco. Once the ball was snapped, McGahee ran a route to the left side behind the receivers who had cleared out. Great call. First down.
Later, on third-and-six from the Pittsburgh 28 in the first half, Cameron went with three receivers to the left. On the snap, they cleared out for running back Le'Ron McClain, who worked underneath for a 25-yard gain to the 3. The Ravens eventually scored a touchdown.
After nine years of watching some of the most boring, predictable offensive football, it's a pleasure to watch the Ravens become creative. When Flacco got pressure, the Ravens rolled him out. They tried several kinds of screens. It was good stuff.
A turning point came with about 5:49 left in the third quarter. Pittsburgh receiver Nate Washington took a reverse for an eight-yard gain, but Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson was called for a personal foul, giving Pittsburgh possession at the Ravens' 44. Three plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes to cut the Ravens' lead to 13-10, give the Steelers momentum and get the crowd back into the game.
The Ravens had a great trio of linebackers in 2000 with Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware on the outside and Ray Lewis in the middle. But I have not seen linebackers hit as hard as the present group of Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs, Lewis and Johnson.
Early in the third quarter, Flacco took a snap and sidestepped the pass rush. He scrambled to his left with three Steelers chasing him, then drifted to his right and threw a 26-yard pass to Derrick Mason. Wow.
It took us three games to find out whether safety Ed Reed can take a hard hit to his neck and shoulder area, and, yes, he can.
Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward leveled Reed on a run by Rashard Mendenhall in the first quarter. Reed was looking the other way, but it was a clean hit.
Not so special
The Ravens had better fix their kickoff return coverage before one of their return specialists gets hurt. The Steelers kept finding holes in the wedge, and Yamon Figurs was getting hit before he even got to the wall.
Are there many receivers in the league that run out patterns better than Mason? Everybody knows he is going to run them, yet he has made a living off them in Baltimore.
The only defensive player who might be playing better than the linebackers is tackle Haloti Ngata. Nobody can block him, and he's starting to run down running backs and quarterbacks. That's scary.
Listen to Mike Preston on Monday's from 4 to 6 p.m. on Fox Sports (1370 AM).