LB Paul Kruger
At the conclusion of the NFL labor dispute earlier this year, the majority of teams around the league scrambled fast to find free agents in order to satisfy individual roster needs. The Baltimore Ravens were one of the more active clubs this offseason, filling voids created by departing veterans and complementing what was considered a highly successful NFL Draft back in April.
The Ravens had one important task during that period of time—to create a team capable of beating down the only roadblock standing in the way of the Super Bowl over the past decade—the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Acquisitions like FB Vonta Leach and OT Bryant McKinney were brought into Baltimore for the sole purpose of solidifying the running game against stout defenses such as Pittsburgh, and to help provide QB Joe Flacco with the time he needs in the pocket to be an effective signal-caller in the NFL.
These changes, and many other moves the Ravens made during the offseason, proved to be the exact blueprint they needed, as Baltimore throttled Pittsburgh in their season-opener at M&T Bank Stadium, 35-7.
The Ravens’ victory this Sunday was an epic one in every sense of the word. Pittsburgh hadn’t lost on opening day in eight straight years, and the margin of defeat for the Steelers was the largest since losing to the New England Patriots at the new Gillette Stadium back in 2002.
The loss also snapped QB Ben Roethlisberger’s seven-game winning streak over Flacco and the Ravens—a streak the Steelers and their fan base took pride in.
Roethlisberger’s domination of the Ravens over the past several seasons led many in Pittsburgh to believe that Baltimore was simply not capable of winning a game with a healthy Roethlisberger under center. The Ravens, especially Flacco, became the brunt of many jokes, citing their only success against the Steelers came with Roethlisberger sitting on the sideline.
With Sunday’s performance by Baltimore now in the books, all of the joking and excuses that came with past victories over Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh teams should end.
While it’s true that Sunday’s win only accounts for one game out of a long NFL season, you can’t look past the dominating fashion in which the Ravens beat down their AFC North archrivals.
The seven turnovers forced by the Ravens’ defense ties a team record, but tops all efforts in matchups with the Steelers. Six of those turnovers came in the second half of the lopsided contest, with safety Ed Reed notching two interceptions, both occurring in the red zone.
For once, it was the Steelers’ defense that looked old, tired and out of shape.
The exact opposite held true for the Ravens.
First-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano kept the promises he made during the offseason after taking over the position vacated by Greg Mattison—promises that included a new-look defense and complex blitzing schemes.
Pagano’s defense looked fresh and played with a level of aggression not seen since the Ravens’ Super Bowl campaign over 10 years ago. There were few missed tackles on the part of the Ravens young defense, and the secondary held opposing Pittsburgh receivers in-check for the entire game.
Rookie CB Jimmy Smith left early in the first quarter with a sprained foot. X-rays were negative, but Smith didn’t return to play.
Thankfully, Smith’s services weren’t needed, as the Ravens’ secondary and linebackers relentlessly penetrated the Steelers’ backfield for the majority of Sunday’s contest.
DT Haloti Ngata proved once again why he is one of the NFL’s top linemen, by disrupting two Roethlisberger passes, both of which resulted in interceptions for the normally mistake-free signal-caller.
As bad as Roethlisberger looked, thanks to a spotless performance by the Ravens’ defense, Flacco looked that much better.
Flacco, now in his fourth full year as a starter, has officially taken over the majority of the offense this year, and the freedom offensive coordinator Cam Cameron handed to Flacco was evident in his performance Sunday afternoon.
Just like the defense, Baltimore’s offense played with a level of aggression not seen in the Charm City since the team’s inception back in 1996.
Flacco had a perfect day, throwing three touchdowns and racking up 224 yards in the process. The laser beams Flacco threw literally carved up a Pittsburgh secondary that has been suspect over the last couple of years when facing quarterbacks who succeed at throwing intermediate to deep balls accurately.
Flacco’s first quarter touchdown pass to WR Anquan Boldin (27 yards) was just the first of many perfect passes Flacco delivered all game long.
However, Flacco’s performance would not have been possible without the outstanding play by the biggest question mark on the Ravens’ team going into 2011—the offensive line.
Do the Ravens finally have Pittsburgh's number?
Many Baltimore fans were concerned about the lack of practice and shuffling around of the current starters on the offensive line leading up to Week 1. Most of those questions and concerns were answered today with a stellar performance by Flacco’s first line of defense.
Flacco was only sacked once and hurried fewer times than Roethlisberger was brought to the ground (four sacks).
Another bright spot on the Ravens’ offense is the emergence of TE Ed Dickson. With TE Todd Heap now in Arizona, Dickson has stepped into the starting role. Dickson, in his second year out of Oregon, is a master at creating mismatches with opposing defenses. With his slender build and speed, Dickson naturally plays more like a receiver, as opposed to a possession tight end.
Dickson ended the day with five catches for 59 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown reception.
With everything said, if the Ravens continue to play at the level they did today in their home-opener, against a team who is heavily favored to reach the Super Bowl for the second straight year, the balance of power will finally shift Baltimore’s way in the tough AFC North, and it could be the Ravens hoisting the Lombardi trophy at the conclusion of the 2011 season.
Todd McGregor is a Baltimore Ravens Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
Follow Todd on Twitter! Twitter.com/ravens023