The easy part is over; now comes the real test -- the Steelers

Now it's time to get back to real football.

After a hiatus since losing to the Atlanta Falcons 17 days ago, the Ravens get back to a more competitive schedule, starting with the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday night.

Games against the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the previous two weeks were just preludes to what the 2010 Ravens are really about. They are one of the top teams in the NFL but might not even be the best team in the AFC North.

"We know that when the Ravens play the Steelers in December, it usually has a lot of meaning, and this game coming up definitely does so it'll be a statement game for us. We know what's in front of us," tight end Todd Heap said.

You really can't read too much into the Ravens' 17-10 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, but it was a better performance than the 37-13 victory against Carolina.

The Buccaneers cut the Ravens' lead to 17-10 with 3:05 left, but Tampa Bay wasn't really a threat. The Ravens controlled the tempo the entire game and basically put the Buccaneers away with 10-yard touchdown reception by Derrick Mason late in the second quarter that put them ahead 17-3 at the half.

The Ravens controlled Tampa Bay's top two running backs, LeGarrette Blount and Cadillac Williams, and one of the major positives to come out of the game was the way the Ravens finished off the Buccaneers by pounding running back Ray Rice at them in the last 3:05 to run out the clock.

Costly injuries

Before the start of Sunday's games, I would have taken the Ravens over the Steelers because Pittsburgh's offensive line was banged up and they wouldn't be able to handle the Ravens physically.

But the Ravens suffered key injuries Sunday that will serve as equalizers. Starting safety Dawan Landry (concussion) and left tackle Michael Oher (sprained knee) left the game in the third quarter, and fullback Le'Ron McClain left in the second with a sprained ankle.

Landry is the easiest to replace because the Ravens have strong backups in Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski. But Oher's backup, Oniel Cousins, isn't ready for a pressure game like against the Steelers, and McClain can't be replaced.

For one, he is the only legitimate fullback and lead blocker on the roster. Also, his replacements would cause the Ravens to make changes in their personnel groupings. Tight ends Ed Dickson or Dennis Pitta would replace McClain, but more in the role of an H-back.

It's hard to play power football without a fullback, especially one who is of Pro Bowl caliber.

Dropped chances

Ravens safety Ed Reed had a chance to intercept two straight passes early in the second quarter, but he dropped both of them. That's unusual because Reed might have the best hands on the team.

What happened?

The guess here is that Reed was figuring out when he was going to lateral the ball before he actually caught it.

Botched calls

The worst call of the game came with 37 seconds remaining in the half. Buccaneers cornerback Myron Lewis had excellent coverage on receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh at the Tampa Bay 10-yard line and forced an incomplete pass.

The official, though, called Lewis for pass interference. Instead of forcing a punt at the Bucs' 42, the Ravens scored on the 10-yard touchdown pass to Mason on the next play. The call was horrendous and turned the momentum of the game.

The call on Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin for blocking Bucs defensive back Sabby Piscitelli in the back in the third quarter — which nullified a 76-touchdown run by Rice off a screen pass — was a laugher, too.

"It wasn't a hold at all; it was a bogus call," Boldin said.

It was a terrible day for this officiating crew.

Where's Washington?

Former starting cornerback Fabian Washington's career has gone south. After starting the first eight games of the season, Washington was on the bench for two more before being declared inactive Sunday.

Meanwhile, rookie defensive tackle Arthur Jones was activated for the first time this season and had a solid game. It was better than the one rookie Terrence Cody played last week.

Scramble troubles

Whenever Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco rolls out of the pocket, he makes me nervous. The world seems to stop when Flacco runs, and his decision-making is as slow as his feet.

Flacco can make plays, but he sometimes struggles with ball security. When Flacco runs, you're basically rolling the dice.

Ballhawk or ball hog?

Note to Ray Lewis: It's OK to let your teammate have an interception and possibly score a touchdown. Please don't rip the ball out of defensive end Cory Redding's arm again.

He is on your team.

Not wrapping them up

The Ravens held the Buccaneers to 263 yards of total offense and Tampa Bay was only 6-for-16 on third down, but the Ravens continue to have tackling problems.

In fact, this team is the worst at tackling in Ravens history, and that includes some of those awful defensive teams after the Ravens moved here from Cleveland for the start of the 1996 season.

Watch the clock

The Ravens need to work on time management. On their last drive of the first half, which began at their 45, the Ravens allowed 53 seconds to expire before they called their first timeout even though they had all three at the beginning of the possession.

Webb bites again

Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb almost got toasted again by a double move from Micheal Spurlock in the fourth quarter, but the wide receiver dropped the deep pass inside the Ravens' 5.

The worst part about the play was that Spurlock's little stutter-and-go move was awful and in slow-motion, and he still got behind Webb.

Listen to Mike Preston on "The Bruce Cunningham Show" from noon to 2 p.m. Mondays and Fridays on 105.7 FM.

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