PITTSBURGH — The Ravens won here last year with explosive, big-play offense. They won here yesterday with dominant defense.
Consider this the start of a new era.Where once this franchise routinely lost at Three Rivers Stadium to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a number of inventive ways, the Ravens yesterday distanced themselves forever from their Cleveland Browns past.
They did it with an oppressive pass rush, a magnificent goal-line stand and a stifling 16-0 victory over the Steelers in the season opener.
"This is my 11th year, and last year was the first time I won here," said defensive end Rob Burnett, the Ravens' elder statesman. "I can never come here and win. We've gotten to the fourth quarter and lost as the Browns and the Ravens, so this is really sweet."
Defense was clearly the order of the day. If this was a statement game, there was no better place to announce Baltimore's ascension as a dominant defensive force in the AFC than Pittsburgh.
"Everything we do got started here," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, a former Steelers coach and architect of the Ravens' attacking scheme. "There are a lot of reasons why we do what we do. We have respect for the way the Steelers run the ball, the way they play-action pass."
On a day hot enough to curl the toes of cornerback Chris McAlister, the Ravens unloosed a menacing pass rush at Steelers quarterback Kent Graham.
Pressured even on quick, three-step drops, Graham absorbed only one sack - that by Burnett - but his 17-for-38 passing performance spoke volumes about the havoc the Ravens raised and the direction they are headed.
"The quarterback stayed on his back the whole entire game," Steelers wide receiver Troy Edwards said of Graham's day.
And there was this from Steelers rookie offensive tackle Marvel Smith: "That was my first game, and they're pretty much the best the NFL has to offer."
The pass rush was so fierce that even when McAlister had to leave the game in the third quarter with cramps from dehydration, the Steelers couldn't capitalize.
"My toes were curling up in my shoes," the second-year cornerback said. "Everything below my waist was cramping up."
Not to worry. McAlister returned in time to help blunt the Steelers' biggest scoring threat in the fourth quarter, preserving the shutout. The domination was thorough and complete.
The Ravens didn't surrender a first down until the second quarter. They didn't let the Steelers cross the 50 until the third quarter. They didn't allow a third-down conversion until the third.
If stopping the Steelers' Jerome Bettis was critical, the Ravens succeeded beyond expectations. Bettis ran nine times for 8 yards, the low-water mark of his Steelers' career. The Steelers averaged 1.7 yards per carry on 18 attempts.
Pittsburgh had a collapsing pocket around Graham. No small part of that was due to new defensive tackle Sam Adams.
"I said all along that Sam would help us," Marvin Lewis said. "Having those guys inside who can push the pocket will wear down an offense. That's what you saw at the end."
A defensive stunt by Adams and Burnett led to the Ravens' first points halfway through the first quarter. Adams achieved penetration on a first-down snap at the Pittsburgh 20, and Burnett looped around behind him on a clean, unbroken path to Graham.
Burnett got a sack and a forced fumble, and the Ravens got the ball. Four plays later, Matt Stover kicked the first of three field goals, a 23-yarder.
The Ravens added a 53-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tony Banks to split end Qadry Ismail three minutes later when the Steelers broke a coverage and allowed Ismail to get behind cornerback Chad Scott. It was Ismail's fourth touchdown of more than 50 yards in two games at Three Rivers.
Other than that, though, it was all defense.
Perhaps the most meaningful was a third-quarter sequence when the Steelers crossed midfield for the first time on a 39-yard pass to Plaxico Burress. After safety Rod Woodson broke up a third-down pass, the Steelers' Kris Brown was wide left on a 45-yard field-goal attempt.
"When they missed the field goal, that pretty much broke their back," Burnett said. "When they couldn't get the three points, I saw their faces and a lot of air come out of them."
The Steelers' best threat came in the form of an 86-yard drive to the Ravens' 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. Graham completed passes of 22, 18 and 22 yards in the drive. After a pass interference penalty against Robert Bailey gave Pittsburgh first-and-goal at the 1, the Steelers inserted Kordell Stewart at quarterback.
Michael McCrary and Adams made plays on first and second down. On third down, Stewart came away from center without the ball. On fourth down, Stewart exited to boos and Graham re-entered the game, only to throw incomplete out of the end zone.
In a game that had already been won, it was another statement. "It meant a lot," Adams said. "It meant we can handle adversity. Regardless of the score, we were able to hold."
"It shows the heart of the defense to allow them to get to the goal line and still keep fighting," said McCrary.
To win on the road was equally significant.
"I've said it before - I think [to win on the road] is the toughest thing to do in all of professional sports," said coach Brian Billick, whose team opens the season with five road games in seven weeks.
Next up is the defending AFC Central champions, the Jacksonville Jaguars, in the Ravens' home opener. McCrary called it "the most important game of the season."
It's another statement waiting to be made.