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September 19, 2011
Infusing new blood into the league's fiercest rivalry, the Ravens demolished the Steelers and changed the balance of power in the AFC. Evolution? In the NFL, you'd better believe
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September 19, 2011

Adapt Or Die

Infusing new blood into the league's fiercest rivalry, the Ravens demolished the Steelers and changed the balance of power in the AFC. Evolution? In the NFL, you'd better believe

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Last week in Pittsburgh the Steelers prepped for their season opener with the help of a black-and-purple talisman named Ray. The small knitted piece—with ray woven in the center, crossed out by an x—was mailed to the Steelers by a fan in 2008 for luck in their blood feud with the Ravens. While Pittsburgh beat Baltimore three times that season and won its record sixth Super Bowl title, Ray went up on a wall in the Steelers' practice facility, next to the lockers of the offensive linemen. "It's from an old lady who said she put a hex on [linebacker] Ray Lewis," right tackle Willie Colon explained. "We've never taken it down."

On Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium the Ravens ended that spell, unraveling the Steelers one thread at a time. Baltimore forced a franchise-record seven turnovers, marched unbothered on a proud but aging defense and unleashed a beating on Ben Roethlisberger so bad that the quarterback struggled to keep his helmet on straight. With four seconds left in a 35--7 rout, Big Ben dropped back to pass one more time. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs broke through a leaky line and flattened Roethlisberger for his third sack. As the players spilled onto the field and headed toward the tunnels, Suggs lingered beneath the cloudy skies to savor the moment. Over the summer he'd predicted a performance like this, believing he has reached a point in his nine-year career where he can win games with preparation as much as talent.

Now he was standing victorious, having outfoxed the Steelers' offensive line and run roughshod over Roethlisberger. "His soul may belong to God," Suggs crowed, "but his ass belongs to me."

In a rivalry marked by hard hits, trash talk and fantastic finishes, Baltimore's thumping provided more than a pivot point. It also gave a teaching moment to the NFL: adapt or die.

"It's a new year, 2011," said the 36-year-old Lewis, who intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and forced a fumble. "New pieces, new faces."

The theme of change was prevalent on the NFL's opening weekend, when new coaches, new players and new philosophies were put to the test after the league's 4½-month lockout. Teams expected to struggle—the Bengals, Cardinals, Jaguars and Redskins—savored victories with new leaders under center. A couple of powerhouses, the Steelers and the Falcons, came out on the short end of surprising blowouts. With a condensed free-agent signing period and limited reps, everybody was on a fast track, all the while trying to avoid tripping and falling.

No team was more impressive than the Ravens. In the first three years under coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore was a combined 32--16, but two of those campaigns ended with a playoff loss to the Steelers. So in the shortened off-season Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome chose to infuse the roster with new blood. He jettisoned veterans such as tight end Todd Heap and wideout Derrick Mason and brought in a raft of players, among them wide receiver Lee Evans, running back Ricky Williams, fullback Vonta Leach, left tackle Bryant McKinnie and safety Bernard Pollard.

With the 27th selection in the April draft, Newsome gambled on Jimmy Smith, a cornerback from Colorado whom some teams shied away from because of character issues. Although Smith injured his ankle on the kickoff coverage team in the first quarter and never lined up at defensive back, he's a key part of the long-term plan in Baltimore. "We drafted Jimmy because when we've been a great defense, when we set the defensive record in 2000 [and won the Super Bowl], we had two great corners in Chris McAlister and Duane Starks," Newsome says. "Jimmy's 6'2", but [he has a long reach]. When he gets his arms up, the ball has to go over that to be completed. Along with that height, he's smooth in transition and he can tackle."

Newsome's moves got the attention of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who admitted to being "a little bit more uneasy" about facing Baltimore after winning six of the previous eight times. "At this juncture they probably know more about us than we know about them," Tomlin said. "Ozzie Newsome and Company have been active this off-season in improving their team."

The Steelers, on the other hand, took a more conservative approach, massaging a roster that lost to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV. But against the quickness of Ravens running back Ray Rice, the power of Williams and the speed of second-year tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta (who had a combined seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown), the Steelers' defense looked old. As in ancient. Pittsburgh gave up 170 yards rushing at 5.5 yards a carry, an unconscionable stat for a black-and-gold defense, while allowing Joe Flacco to pass for 224 yards and three touchdowns.

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