John Harbaugh walked toward the back of the bench to exhort the fans, wagged four fingers in the air to signal the start of the final quarter and welcomed big defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to the sideline with a flying chest bump that left the Ravens’ head coach falling backward.
Despite one of the most trying weeks in franchise history, Harbaugh told general manager Ozzie Newsome on Wednesday that he sensed his team was ready to play well and was he ever prophetic.
The Ravens broke the trend of close games against their biggest rival by dominating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 26-6, in front of an announced 71,181 at M&T; Bank Stadium and a prime-time television audience.
“It was a great victory,” said Harbaugh who avoided comparing it to other memorable ones in his tenure. “To see our guys be able to finish the way they did in the second half says a lot.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco completed 21-of-29 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns, both to veteran tight end Owen Daniels, and avoided putting the ball in harm’s way. Bernard Pierce led a persistent ground game that gained 157 yards. Justin Tucker kicked four field goals and the defense forced three turnovers and made long-time nemesis Ben Roethlisberger look ordinary.
And when it was over, a whole organization, which had dealt with the fallout from Monday’s release of star running back Ray Rice, exhaled.
“It’s been a really long week, but it’s the Ravens’ identity,” said Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs. “We stick together. Our city is going through it with us and it was good for us to get back onto the football field. We all banded together from the moment Thursday got here. The fans were ready and we were ready to show just who we are. That’s Ravens’ football.”
Several players acknowledged that Rice, who was suspended indefinitely by the NFL after a video surfaced Monday that showed him punching his then-fiancee, was in their thoughts. Cornerback Jimmy Smith said that he still loved and supported Rice.
“It was a very difficult week, and we still care about Ray,” said wide receiver Torrey Smith. “He’s still a good person who made a terrible mistake, and we’ll still support him. We just needed to go out tonight and take care of business.”
Avoiding going 0-2, the Ravens built a 10-0 lead, never trailed and then scored the game’s final 16 points. They were sharp on offense, aggressive on defense and disciplined throughout, committing just four penalties compared to the Steelers’ nine. If there were any questions whether the team would be prepared to play given the quick turnaround from Sunday’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and all the non-football talk that dominated the days that followed, they were quickly answered.
“Not having ever gone through anything like this before, I guess you’re never sure,” Harbaugh said. “But knowing our guys, I had a pretty good feeling that they would respond.”
The Steelers took the opening kickoff and drove deep into Ravens’ territory before middle linebacker Daryl Smith stripped wide receiver Justin Brown of the ball and DeAngelo Tyson recovered it. The Ravens then needed just 10 plays – eight of them runs – to score the game’s first points with Flacco hitting Daniels in the back of the end zone for a 2-yard score.
The Ravens’ lead was 10-6 early in the third quarter before the Ravens drove 80 yards on 12 plays and Flacco again found Daniels in the back of the end zone, this time from 1-yard away.
“I think it’s just the icing on the top,” said Daniels who caught five passes for the 28 yards and two scores. “We put great drives together with a lot of guys contributing in those drives.”
The Ravens scored points on four straight possessions to forge a comfortable lead, a rarity in this matchup. Ten of the previous 12 Ravens-Steelers’ game had been decided by three points or fewer.
“We’ve only played a couple where they haven’t been tight all the way,” said Flacco who connected with wide receiver Steve Smith six times for 71 yards. “I think our guys did a great job playing a full 60 minutes.”
As the minutes ticked away, the resignation started to set in with the Steelers. Tight end Heath Miller fumbled, setting up Tucker’s third field goal. Ngata also made a diving interception of a tipped Roethlisberger pass.
On defense, the Steelers started getting gouged for long runs by Pierce and Justin Forsett. Pierce, who started after being benched following his second-quarter fumble against the Bengals, rushed 22 times for 96 yards as the Ravens’ offensive line took satisfaction in keeping Flacco clean and wearing down the Steelers’ front.
“They had guys throwing up,” said right guard Kelechi Osemele. “We couldn’t even get one of the plays off as fast as we wanted to because the dude [linebacker Lawrence Timmons] threw up right where [center Jeremy Zuttah] was trying to snap the ball. They had guys throwing up. They were definitely wearing down.”
When the game was finally over, the relief among the Ravens was palpable. Harbaugh, who was front and center most of the week as the voice of the team, pumped his fist toward the crowd. Several players talked excitedly about getting a couple of days off and watching other teams play on Sunday.
The Ravens avoided an 0-2 start at home, which could have been disastrous for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, and they passed the test of one of the more difficult weeks that many of them had experienced.
“We fought through the adversity,” said cornerback Chykie Brown. “That’s what men do. We weathered the storm. I know everybody thought we already lost the game because of what happened. It shows you how strong-willed we are.”