They'd heard it all before. Nonetheless, as the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive players listened to their fiery coordinator, Tim Lewis, review his game plan last Saturday night, they lapped up every word. Having dominated the Baltimore Ravens' offense twice during the regular season (though the teams split the games), everyone in the unit knew the drill, chapter and verse: Stuff the run, exploit Baltimore's shaky offensive line and force quarterback Elvis Grbac to win the game with his arm. "Good quarterback, good pocket presence," Lewis recited, "but when you get to him, make sure you brush him. He doesn't like to be hit." On the last point the players barked their approval. It was, Lewis recalled, "like dangling the meat right in front of them."
Indeed, during Pittsburgh's 27-10 walloping of Baltimore in their AFC divisional playoff on Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers' defenders acted like a pack of wild dogs. Consider their rapacious performance in the first half. Led by a sublime quartet of ball-hawking linebackers, the Steelers went after Grbac like ores after Frodo. When Grbac wasn't sacked or knocked down, he hurried one poor throw after another, completing eight of 16 passes for 72 yards while flinging two ugly interceptions—the first on the game's third play, the second on second-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 11-yard line late in the first quarter, while the Ravens trailed 10-0.
Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh—the NFL's regular-season leader in total defense and rushing defense—never permitted Baltimore's supposedly revitalized rushing attack to find its rhythm. The Ravens gained 13 yards on nine carries in the first half. More shocking was watching Baltimore's celebrated defense get pounded into submission by a Steelers offense that was missing bruising running back Jerome Bettis, who couldn't play because a pregame painkilling injection in his strained groin had left his right leg numb.
Even without the Bus, the Steelers rushed for 98 yards on 22 carries in the first half, led by backup Amos Zereoue. Meanwhile, quarterback Kordell Stewart completed eight of 11 passes for 83 yards. (He would finish an efficient 12 of 22 for 154 yards and a touchdown.) The Steelers sped to a 20-0 lead in the second quarter, and the game was over.
How to explain Pittsburgh's mastery of the only half that mattered? In a word, defense. Baltimore didn't pick up a first down until 2:50 was left in the second quarter. The Steelers outgained the Ravens 175 yards to 73, held the ball for more than 19 minutes and had no penalties or punts. After a week of mild trash-talking between the two teams, Pittsburgh made it clear that the league's baddest defense no longer wears purple. "The Ravens feel they can bully you, and they scare a lot of teams, but not us," says Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter. "All that cockiness and attitude—blah, blah, blah. We got sick of seeing their interviews. How can they say they've got the best defense? They can't, because we do."
It was the brash Porter who lit Pittsburgh's fire, first in pregame warmups, when he had to be separated from mountainous Baltimore defensive tackle Sam Adams, and again only 1:27 into the game, when he fell to the ground after hurdling Ravens fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo, scrambled to his feet and tipped a Grbac pass that quacked its way into the hands of cornerback Chad Scott. "After that first pick, you could see Elvis was rattled," says Porter, who finished with six tackles and a sack. "He started looking for our blitzes and stopped going through his progressions."
Said Steelers safety Lee Flowers, "You could see it in [Grbac's] eyes—he freaked out. By the end he was dropping three steps and ducking."
As the game's final seconds—and with them the Ravens' imperious yearlong reign as Super Bowl champions—ticked away, the Steelers were not yet thinking about the New England Patriots, their opponents in Sunday's AFC Championship. Instead, they were intent on dissing Baltimore. "I never want to hear about the Ravens' defense again!" screamed Flowers on the Pittsburgh sideline. "We own their s—-!"
His panting teammates repeated after Lee, "We own it! We own it!"