Last week in Pittsburgh the Steelers prepped for their season opener with the help of a black-and-purple talisman named Ray. The small knitted piece—with ray woven in the center, crossed out by an x—was mailed to the Steelers by a fan in 2008 for luck in their blood feud with the Ravens. While Pittsburgh beat Baltimore three times that season and won its record sixth Super Bowl title, Ray went up on a wall in the Steelers' practice facility, next to the lockers of the offensive linemen. "It's from an old lady who said she put a hex on [linebacker] Ray Lewis," right tackle Willie Colon explained. "We've never taken it down."
This is an article from the Sept. 19, 2011 issue
On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium the Ravens ended that spell, unraveling the Steelers one thread at a time. Baltimore forced a franchise-record seven turnovers, marched unbothered on a proud but aging defense and unleashed a beating on Ben Roethlisberger so bad that the quarterback struggled to keep his helmet on straight. With four seconds left in a 35--7 rout, Big Ben dropped back to pass one more time. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs broke through a leaky line and flattened Roethlisberger for his third sack. As the players spilled onto the field and headed toward the tunnels, Suggs lingered beneath the cloudy skies to savor the moment. Over the summer he'd predicted a performance like this, believing he has reached a point in his nine-year career where he can win games with preparation as much as talent.
Now he was standing victorious, having outfoxed the Steelers' offensive line and run roughshod over Roethlisberger. "His soul may belong to God," Suggs crowed, "but his ass belongs to me."
In a rivalry marked by hard hits, trash talk and fantastic finishes, Baltimore's thumping provided more than a pivot point. It also gave a teaching moment to the NFL: adapt or die.
"It's a new year, 2011," said the 36-year-old Lewis, who intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and forced a fumble. "New pieces, new faces."
The theme of change was prevalent on the NFL's opening weekend, when new coaches, new players and new philosophies were put to the test after the league's 4½-month lockout. Teams expected to struggle—the Bengals, Cardinals, Jaguars and Redskins—savored victories with new leaders under center. A couple of powerhouses, the Steelers and the Falcons, came out on the short end of surprising blowouts. With a condensed free-agent signing period and limited reps, everybody was on a fast track, all the while trying to avoid tripping and falling.
No team was more impressive than the Ravens. In the first three years under coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore was a combined 32--16, but two of those campaigns ended with a playoff loss to the Steelers. So in the shortened off-season Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome chose to infuse the roster with new blood. He jettisoned veterans such as tight end Todd Heap and wideout Derrick Mason and brought in a raft of players, among them wide receiver Lee Evans, running back Ricky Williams, fullback Vonta Leach, left tackle Bryant McKinnie and safety Bernard Pollard.
With the 27th selection in the April draft, Newsome gambled on Jimmy Smith, a cornerback from Colorado whom some teams shied away from because of character issues. Although Smith injured his ankle on the kickoff coverage team in the first quarter and never lined up at defensive back, he's a key part of the long-term plan in Baltimore. "We drafted Jimmy because when we've been a great defense, when we set the defensive record in 2000 [and won the Super Bowl], we had two great corners in Chris McAlister and Duane Starks," Newsome says. "Jimmy's 6'2", but [he has a long reach]. When he gets his arms up, the ball has to go over that to be completed. Along with that height, he's smooth in transition and he can tackle."
Newsome's moves got the attention of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who admitted to being "a little bit more uneasy" about facing Baltimore after winning six of the previous eight times. "At this juncture they probably know more about us than we know about them," Tomlin said. "Ozzie Newsome and Company have been active this off-season in improving their team."
The Steelers, on the other hand, took a more conservative approach, massaging a roster that lost to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV. But against the quickness of Ravens running back Ray Rice, the power of Williams and the speed of second-year tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta (who had a combined seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown), the Steelers' defense looked old. As in ancient. Pittsburgh gave up 170 yards rushing at 5.5 yards a carry, an unconscionable stat for a black-and-gold defense, while allowing Joe Flacco to pass for 224 yards and three touchdowns.
"We understand that every time you play the Baltimore Ravens, you have to bring it or you will be embarrassed on the scoreboard and embarrassed physically," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said last week. "Our fans don't like the fact that they're one of the few teams that hits us back."
Newsome has been butting heads with the Steelers since 1978, first as a tight end with the Browns and now as an executive. "You can measure yourself and your season with your ability to beat the Steelers," Newsome says. "It hasn't changed."
The new Ravens had only heard stories about the rivalry, but they couldn't wait to get their own taste of it. Pollard, who previously played for the Chiefs and the Texans, used to seek out Ravens-Steelers highlights after his own games.
"You always knew something was going to go down," Pollard said last Thursday. "That went into my decision to come [to Baltimore] because you see guys get down and dirty. At the end of the day we are all dogs without a leash. That's what you have out there."
The Baltimore coaching staff was happy to oblige its new charges, throwing them headlong into a game plan that was executed with precision. On the Ravens' first play from scrimmage, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called for a Rice run off the left side. McKinnie, who was released by the Vikings after reporting to camp well overweight, at 387, made an initial block, then launched himself into linebacker James Farrior on the second level. Rice dashed for the first 36 of his 107 yards. The tone was set.
Said Cameron of McKinnie, "It doesn't hurt to give a guy a chance to tee off on somebody the first play of the game."
While the new members of the Ravens gave Baltimore a different energy, the veterans carried the burden of heartbreaking losses to the Steelers. "I knew they had some bitterness in them," Smith said of his older teammates. At halftime, with the Ravens leading by the same 21--7 margin they enjoyed in last January's divisional playoff game, several players talked about being in this position before. This time, they promised, they would make it right. That wasn't what Lewis wanted to hear, so he took the floor and let loose.
"I corrected everybody," he said. "Everyone was basically saying, 'We've been here before,' and I was like, 'We haven't been here before—2010 and all those other years are behind us.'"
While Lewis, safety Ed Reed (two interceptions, four passes defensed) and nosetackle Haloti Ngata (two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble) handled the details of new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's more aggressive, get-to-the-quarterback scheme, Baltimore's offense was predominantly in the hands of two players for whom last year's playoff meltdown was an especially dismal memory: Flacco, who had thrown an interception and lost a fumble, and the normally sure-handed Rice, who had also fumbled. In fact, some viewed Flacco, the 18th pick in the 2008 draft, as the only question mark on an otherwise Super Bowl--ready team.
"Joe knows the heat that comes with the territory, but he's played pretty darn good in those [Steelers] games," Cameron says. "Everyone picks a quarterback apart until he beats the team [that] maybe he's lost to a few times. I always knew he was made of the right stuff."
Flacco, nicknamed Joe Cool by his teammates, knows that one dominating victory over an old nemesis won't quiet everybody. "There's always going to be critics," he says. "Turn around, 10 weeks down the road, and something might happen and, O.K., it's back again."
Said Rice, "We know it's Week 1. It's not the playoffs. But that playoff taste [from last season], that's over."
At the very least the Ravens have bloodied their hated foe. The Steelers, after a Super Bowl defeat and an off-season of embarrassing headlines, face questions about their own mettle. Safety Troy Polamalu, hobbled by a left Achilles tendon injury last season, made little impact beyond a horse-collar penalty. Linebacker James Harrison, with two back surgeries in the off-season, left the game with a bruised right knee. Farrior spent more time on the sideline than usual, cradling his helmet and watching his replacement, Larry Foote. Yet while the defense is aging and the offensive line appears vulnerable, Roethlisberger didn't seem overly concerned. "I just think this was a bump in the road," he said.
As the Steelers limped out of M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens exchanged hugs and handshakes. Rice showed off a bloody two-inch gash behind his right ear. He couldn't even remember the play that cut him.
"Steelers-Ravens is like the Detroit Pistons against the Chicago Bulls," Reed said. "You go into the paint knowing you're going to get fouled."
Harbaugh agreed: "Ray [Lewis] said it earlier in the week—it was going to be about being physical and about executing. The whole thing about ghosts, demons, monkeys on your back, that's not real to us."
No, for these Ravens, there is more than a Ray of hope.