BALTIMORE — If you allowed yourself to think about football over the last few days, you couldn’t help but wonder how the Ravens would respond to the most tumultuous in-season week in franchise history.
From the release of the second Ray Rice video that led to the running back’s release Monday afternoon to the countless questions faced by the players remaining in the locker room, it seemed like a lot to ask of a team — speaking in a football sense, of course — to prepare to play the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on a short week. Scrutiny and criticism justifiably rained on the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell, and Ravens leadership while players knew they needed to avoid an 0-2 start that would have already put Baltimore in a significant hole in the AFC North.
Those same players also absorbed the loss of a valued teammate and friend whom they care about, even if they were as disturbed as anyone watching the video of what Rice did to his then-fiancée in that elevator in Atlantic City. For as much as we admire what these professional athletes accomplish on the field, they’re human beings with emotions just like anyone else, making their convincing 26-6 win over Pittsburgh that much more impressive on Thursday night.
“Whenever you lose a brother, it’s tough,” said linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who collected the only two sacks of the game as the Ravens held Pittsburgh to just two field goals. “Obviously, understanding the situation, we have a bunch of men on our team and you know it’s a business. Things have to happen, and you just have to prepare for it.”
The performance was focused and efficient as the Ravens put together four scoring drives of 10 plays or more to bounce back from a disappointing start to the season against Cincinnati in Week 1. In fact, if you hadn’t known which team had been dealing with such off-field adversity this week, you might have guessed it was the Steelers as they committed three turnovers, nine penalties for 75 yards, and mustered only six points to fall to 1-1.
Thursday was a reasonable blueprint of what you expect to see from Gary Kubiak’s new offense as Joe Flacco completed 21 of 29 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns — the quarterback also wasn’t sacked once — and the Ravens rushed for 157 yards on 36 carries. The numbers weren’t gaudy, but the final score reflected a convincing win over an opponent they outplayed for the better part of 60 minutes.
The tone was set on the opening drive of the game after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense initially moved down the field in impressive fashion. It was looking like another shaky start for the Ravens defense before safety Darian Stewart delivered a vicious blow to temporarily knock standout receiver Antonio Brown out of the game — he was a non-factor when he returned — and linebacker Daryl Smith followed that by stripping wideout Justin Brown inside the red zone, allowing defensive end DeAngelo Tyson to recover the fumble.
It was basically all Ravens after that as Flacco and the offense marched down the field for a 12-play drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Owen Daniels. Baltimore would score six times in all before the night was over.
“That’s just the icing on the top,” said Daniels about his two touchdown catches. “We put great drives together [with] a lot of people contributing in those drives to get us down to that goal line, and I just happened to be that guy to score that touchdown. Huge team effort overall — huge offensive effort; a lot of guys contributing.”
The performance wasn’t perfect as the Ravens only went 2-for-6 inside the red zone with three fourth-quarter drives stalling inside the 5-yard line. And the impressive final rushing totals were a product of a 96-yard fourth quarter against a clearly-tired Pittsburgh defense after gaining only 61 yards on 23 carries through the first 45 minutes when the outcome remained somewhat in doubt.
But there was plenty to like on both sides of the ball as an efficient offense was complemented by a defense that offered an improved pass rush from a week ago and forced three takeaways to stall what little momentum the Steelers offense was able to create over the course of the night.
Following the game, it was clear to see the Ravens’ satisfaction in not only rising to the occasion after a difficult week but responding with a strong sense of urgency to a disappointing Week 1 loss. Thursday night’s win was one the Ravens needed badly on a variety of levels as they attempt to move past the Rice saga and turn all attention toward returning to the postseason in 2014.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” Flacco said. “No matter what it is, I think that we’re a team that tends to group together and come together through tough times. I never had a doubt that we wouldn’t be able to come out here and go get a win tonight.”
And the Ravens certainly played that way Thursday night.