New-look Ravens off to flying start; expect more

Three straight playoff appearances wasn’t good enough for the
Baltimore Ravens, who overhauled their roster during the offseason
in an effort to become one of the elite teams in the AFC.

The result was on full display Sunday, when the Ravens
manhandled the same team that ousted them from the playoffs only
eight months earlier.

Baltimore’s 35-7 rout of the defending conference champion
Pittsburgh Steelers offered proof that the 2011 Ravens aren’t only
different from last year’s version, but possibly superior.

”This is just a start,” said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who
had four catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. ”We wanted to come
out and make a statement, but we think we can only get better from
here.”

It would seem difficult for the Ravens to improve upon their
dominant performance in the opener, but it’s not impossible,
either. Several of the newcomers – including offensive tackle
Bryant McKinnie, center Andre Gurode and wide receiver Lee Evans –
have been with the team for less than a month. Running back Ricky
Williams and safety Bernard Pollard were added to the mix in early
August.

In the days leading up to the opener, coach John Harbaugh could
only hope his team would come together and immediately play
well.

”I don’t think you ever know how you’re going to go out and
play the first game. We expected to win the game. We thought we had
a chance to play really well,” Harbaugh said Monday. ”But you
never know until you go do it. That’s what you’re proud of as a
coach. When you prepare the way they prepared, and then to take it
to the field on Sunday, that’s a very rewarding thing for coaches
and for players.

”But the challenge now is to build on it and improve. Because
everyone else is going to improve.”

The Ravens will have to move forward without rookie cornerback
Jimmy Smith, who sprained his left ankle on Baltimore’s first
kickoff and will miss a few weeks, according to Harbaugh.

The Ravens were down to two cornerbacks for a time Sunday after
Chris Carr was bothered by a hamstring strain and Cary Williams
cramped up.

But Pittsburgh managed only one touchdown against a unit
overseen by first-year coordinator Chuck Pagano. The Ravens have
long been known for their defense, but never before Sunday had
Baltimore forced seven turnovers in a single game.

”I think it’s different,” tackle Haloti Ngata said of Pagano’s
philosophy. ”You can see it’s more aggressive. He makes good
calls, and he knew really well what Pittsburgh was trying to
do.”

Ngata had a hand in three of those turnovers, Ed Reed had two
interceptions, and Terrell Suggs kept constant pressure on nemesis
Ben Roethlisberger. Suggs finished with three sacks to displace
Peter Boulware as the Ravens’ career leader.

Baltimore’s offense was just as impressive. The Ravens needed
only three plays to reach the end zone in their opening possession,
increased the margin to 14-0 after the first quarter and romped to
their most lopsided victory in a series that began in 1996.

No longer is anyone questioning the decision by general manager
Ozzie Newsome to dump veteran tight end Todd Heap, wide receiver
Derrick Mason and running back Willis McGahee.

The tight end tandem of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta combined for
seven receptions, 104 yards and a touchdown. Evans didn’t have a
catch despite being targeted four times by quarterback Joe Flacco,
but his presence as a deep threat cleared the middle of the
field.

”Lee opened up a couple crossing routes for us where he took
the top off the coverage,” Harbaugh said. ”If they don’t run with
him, Joe is going to throw it to him. I think he had that type of
an impact. He played well; he was a factor, no doubt.”

So was Ricky Williams, who ran 12 times for 63 yards and caught
a pass out of the backfield. In addition, Vonta Leach, the
replacement for departed free agent Le’Ron McClain, helped clear
the way for Ray Rice to run for 107 yards.

”We got whipped in every facet of the game,” Pittsburgh safety
Ryan Clark said. ”There were the more physical team, the more
aggressive team. They were the team more technically sound. They’re
just the better team right now.”