Game 1: A step back, a step forward

TAMPA, FLA. — If this is the Ravens' path back to respectability, they don't need a road map.

Reverting to their trusted formula - dominating defense and ball-control offense - the Ravens began the season with an authoritative 27-0 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday at Raymond James Stadium, coincidentally the site of the team's NFL championship six seasons ago.

The defense struck a defiant pose in recording its first shutout since 2003, taking the ball away three times and taking away the middle of the field with several bone-crunching hits.

The offense matched the determination of new quarterback Steve McNair, methodically marching downfield for both of its touchdown drives while eating up the clock by the minute.

After the history lesson was complete, the Ravens had stomped out an 11-game road losing streak and taken their first step back to validating themselves as a playoff contender.

"They didn't know what was coming!" linebacker Ray Lewis shouted while heading into the locker room.

Few could have predicted such a suffocating effort, even from a historically strong Ravens defense.

The Ravens' defense didn't give up a first down on seven of 12 drives and ended three others with interceptions. Cornerback Chris McAlister returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown that put the Ravens ahead 14-0, and rookie defensive tackle Haloti Ngata later rumbled 60 yards after making a surprising pickoff to set up a field goal.

In the end - after the Ravens had held the Buccaneers to 142 yards and eight first downs - they celebrated their first season-opening shutout since their 2000 Super Bowl season, when they began with a 16-0 win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

"A shutout in the NFL is always shocking," coach Brian Billick said. "That is hard to do, under the circumstances. Some of you may have noticed that we haven't been really good on the road the last couple of years."

In winning on the road for the first time since Nov. 14, 2004, the Ravens showed they had learned from the mistakes of their past. They didn't commit a turnover and were penalized just four times for 25 yards.

Asked if there was any relief that the streak was over, Billick joked, "What streak? We've got a 1-0 winning streak on the road. That's the streak I'm worried about."

The McNair era opened in style, as the Ravens reached the end zone after going 80 yards on 14 plays. The first drive of the season ended with a 4-yard touchdown run by running back Jamal Lewis (78 yards on 18 carries) rather than the customary field goal of seasons past.

"That's what I was telling guys in the huddle: We worked too hard not to score six points," said McNair, who finished 17-for-27 for 181 yards passing.

The 9-minute, 16-second drive - which took up nearly two-thirds of the first quarter - set the tone for the defense as much as the offense.

"When the offense gives us that type of rest, it enables us to play three quarters of football with four quarters of gas in the tank," linebacker Bart Scott said.

On a day hot enough to cause six of their players to take fluids intravenously, the Ravens turned up the heat on quarterback Chris Simms and his receivers.

Sending defenders up the middle - taking advantage of two backup guards - the Ravens sacked Simms twice and knocked down countless passes. From Scott to Lewis to Adalius Thomas, the Ravens' linebackers controlled the middle of the field, each knocking a Buccaneer off his feet with a jolting hit.

"Why run all the way there just to lay a lollipop on a guy?" Scott said. "When you get there, you want to make them remember you. If you hit a boxer in the early rounds with good body shots, they run out of steam by the time they get to the end."

The best counterpunches were delivered by McAlister and Ngata.

Catching a floating pass in front of tight end Doug Jolley, McAlister ran down the sideline for his fourth career touchdown, putting the Ravens ahead 14-0 on the first play of the second quarter.

Four drives later, Ngata caught a deflected pass and took it 60 yards before running out of bounds at the Tampa Bay 9. The second turnover of the quarter set up a 20-yard Matt Stover field goal, increasing the Ravens' lead to 17-0.

It was surprising for the Ravens to come away with three interceptions for the game after finishing with a franchise-low 12 last season. It wasn't surprising to see their 340-pound first-round pick lose his breath and not reach the end zone.

"You can't expect an 18-wheeler to go basically two cities," Scott said. "I'm just proud that he stayed up and we didn't have to carry him off the sideline."

The Ravens finished their scoring in the fourth quarter, when McNair hit Daniel Wilcox for a 4-yard score, his first touchdown pass as a Raven. It wrapped up another long drive (nine plays, 61 yards) as the Ravens went a long way yesterday to back up their high expectations this season.

"If you know football, you know we're going to be a hard team to beat," said Ray Lewis, who tipped a pass on fourth-and-goal to preserve the shutout.

Not only did the Ravens beat last year's NFC South Division champion (which returned nearly intact), but they also trumped last season's top-ranked defense. In what could be a familiar journey, the Ravens feel like they have pointed themselves in the right direction.

"We expect to be a top defense in the NFL," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We expect to go a long way as a team. This is a huge first step."