It was personal for the Ravens. The Steelers have represented the largest stumbling block on their road to the Super Bowl in recent seasons, and they aren't happy about that. Not the team, not the coaching staff, and certainly not the 71,000+ fans in M & T Bank Stadium that engulfed the few of us who were hardy (or fool-hardy) enough to sport the Black and Gold. They came to the stadium determined to change the narrative or die in the attempt.
It was personal for the Steelers. No team likes to take the sort of drubbing they took yesterday. I suppose it would have been worse to have been beaten that badly by one of the perennial losers in the league. But right now, it's hard to imagine that they could feel any worse than they do this morning, waking up to the knowledge that the hated Ravens made them look, as one fan loudly declared, like they were soft, old, and slow.
It was personal for Steeler Nation. Depending on the temperament of the individual fan expressing the opinion, either this shows that our whole season is going down the toilet, it is a disquieting sign that all may not be well, or it is the wake-up call the guys needed. But I imagine that few Steelers fans jumped out of bed this morning whistling a cheerful tune. We'll put the best face on it that we can, but it hurt. A lot.
And finally, it was personal for me. I was probably a good deal safer as I walked back to my downtown parking garage than I would have been had the Steelers prevailed. In fact, had the results been reversed and the Steelers blown out the Ravens as many thought they would, I would have called a cab, and prayed that the driver was a recent immigrant from a place where they don't care at all about American football.
As it was, the few of us Steeler faithful walking amongst the vast throngs of pumped Ravens fans had to endure a litany of abuse, punctuated with choruses of “Steelers suck.”
Not that I'm castigating the Ravens fans per se—I'm sure similar scenes have ensued in Pittsburgh. Those of us who treat opposing fans with courtesy wish that the rest of our fanbase would do the same. And then we would wish that the same courtesy would be extended to us. Unfortunately there is an ugly element in every crowd.
So here are some observations, shot at random from the jumble of impressions in my head.
I've never seen anything quite like the introduction of the team. The Steelers ran out of the tunnel after a very unenthusiastic introduction from the announcer, and were booed, as one would expect.
Then the fog machine started up, pumping smoke from the Raven's tunnel. The announcer's voice changed from the tone in which one might note that they had discovered a dead rat under the kitchen sink to the cadence you might use when informed that your eldest child has just been elected President.
The music intensified as the cheerleaders, flag carriers, and other entertainers emerged. The jumbotron was showing the players as they came through the hall, and then the offensive players were announced, one by one.
The new players were welcomed with enthusiasm, but the crowd's full voice was reserved for the stars—Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice, and Joe Flacco. Fireworks were shot out of the columns surrounding the mouth of the tunnel.
As the defense was announced, the fireworks turned to jets of flame. It was quite an impressive display. I don't know if that's the usual shtick for the Ravens or new for this season, but it took me by surprise.
And speaking of the announcer, there was never any impression that he was making an attempt to appear impartial. Before the Steelers put their lone touchdown on the board, the score would be announced like this: “Ravens 14!!!!! PITTSBURGH STEELERS NOTHINGGGGGG!!!! When the score was 21-7 the tactic changed: “RAVENS 21!!!!!! Pittsburgh Steelers 7.” (To get the proper effect, you have to imagine "Pittsburgh Steelers 7" in 6 point font, with the faintest color that will show up up on the white background.) First downs for the Ravens were announced with vast relish and enthusiasm. First downs for the Steelers got the rat-under-the-sink voice.
I don't know whether that is typical at other stadiums. At Heinz Field it is clear that the announcer works for the Steelers, but otherwise he is pretty matter of fact. Just a difference in style, I suppose.
Opening coin toss: I was a little surprised that the Steelers deferred. I sort of expected them, given the opportunity, to make a statement to the Ravens and the world that they were going to dominate the game. Perhaps the thinking was that a three-and-out would deflate the crowd a bit, and a Pittsburgh touchdown would seal the deal. It would have been nice if it had worked out that way. But if that was the calculation, obviously it didn't work.
Because the Ravens looked good. Really good. They looked, in fact, like a team that had spent the previous eight months figuring out how to beat the Steelers. They played a virtually mistake-free game, they were aided by mistakes and bad breaks for the Steelers, and they deserved every point they put on the board.
Ben took a couple of really hard hits. He was pretty slow to get up from one of them. I find myself wondering if he was mildly concussed. It would explain the extremely poor decision-making as the game progressed. However, I suppose that the frustration that having a really bad day engenders could also explain it.
Mike Tomlin didn't have any kind words at all for anyone or anything on the team last night, and that's what you would expect.
But in fairness it should be pointed out that Special Teams did their job. There were a couple of good returns when returns were possible. (Billy Cundiff saw to it that they mostly weren't.) Antonio Brown managed runs of 41 and 31 yards. They didn't get stupid penalties—pretty good on a day when the regular units did. They didn't give up any fumbles—unlike the offense. [UPDATE: I forgot about the safety the kick holder garnered, without much opposition from Special Teams.]
Ike Taylor was the man. I don't know how he could go out into the maelstrom that was M & T Bank Stadium yesterday, with a thumb that had just gotten a pin taken out of it a few days before, and shut down Lee Evans, but he did.
Old man Hines Ward was the best-looking receiver on the field, with the possible exception of Heath Miller. Maybe it's just as well that he didn't get to use his new dance routine, though—I don't think it would have played well to that crowd.
Perhaps the thing that struck me the most forcibly yesterday was that the team came out of the tunnel in much the same way they did at the last game I attended. That would be the drubbing that the Patriots gave us at Heinz Field last November. They just looked flat, somehow. It makes me think that I should pledge never to attend a live game again, for fear of jinxing them.
Football is the ultimate team sport, and something was wrong with the team yesterday. It will be several more weeks before we can reasonably assess whether this is a malaise that will engulf the season or a temporary virus that they will shake off and purge with a definitive win in Week 2. But in the meantime, as a nearby Ravens fan said to me on the way out of the stadium, “Payback's a bitch.”