Ravens hit Steelers in the mouth

BALTIMORE -- The oxygen rapidly escaped Ben Roethlisberger's chest, driven out by an intimidating tackle by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Bart Scott.

The brutal hit launched the Pittsburgh Steelers' towering quarterback airborne for a moment in the second quarter before the back of his helmet crashed into the ground. The impact left him prone for several minutes before he was able to regain his faculties and walk off the field.

"It was a dream shot," said Scott, who dashed untouched into the Steelers' backfield. "You dream as a child of hitting the quarterback like that. I'm sure he was thinking about that the rest of the day."

It was a nightmare for the unraveling Steelers, and a dream sequence for the resurgent Ravens that they duplicated again and again to tie a franchise record with nine sacks Sunday to rout the defending Super Bowl champions, 27-0, at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore (9-2) won its fifth consecutive game, its best streak since an 11-game run toward winning Super Bowl XXXV, and retained its grip on the No. 2 overall playoff seed in the AFC.

The Ravens' aggression was never matched by the Steelers, bullying their AFC North rivals and virtually stamping out their flickering playoff hopes. The victory place Baltimore within one step of clinching the AFC North title, provided they can complete a sweep of the Cincinnati Bengals on the road Thursday night.

"We're on to the second one," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The plane for Cincinnati leaves in five hours, I think."

Baltimore tied the most sacks the Steelers (4-7) have allowed in their history, and marked the second shutout the Ravens have manufactured this season. It also spelled the Ravens' fourth consecutive win over Pittsburgh in Baltimore.

"We made a statement," tight end Todd Heap said after handing the Steelers their most lopsided defeat since a 37-7 romp by the Dallas Cowboys in 1997. "It meant even more to do this against Pittsburgh."

Scott's hit in the second quarter set a physical tone nearly equaled by how running back Jamal Lewis bulldozed through safety Ryan Clark in the open field with a helmet to his chest.

Afterward, Roethlisberger was still talking about how Scott rendered him breathless.

"That's probably the hardest I've ever been hit in my life, I truly feel that way," Roethlisberger said. "I didn't see the guy coming. He came clean and I just kind of remember my head hitting the ground."

The tackle didn't just cause pain. It created a reverberating sound recognizable several yards away.

"It was pretty hard," said defensive end Terrell Suggs, who had two sacks along with defensive end Trevor Pryce. "I was 30 yard downfield, and I heard it. That's why Bart's the ‘Mad Backer.'" With Baltimore dashing out to a 17-0 halftime lead behind an adeptly delivered 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steve McNair that hit Heap in stride, Lewis' powerful, 1-yard touchdown run and a 37-yard Matt Stover field goal, the proverbial knockout punch was delivered in the third quarter by diminutive nickel back Corey Ivy.

A blitzing Ivy sacked Roethlisberger and forced him to fumble with outside linebacker Adalius Thomas scooping it up and sprinting 57 yards for a touchdown that propelled the Ravens to an even more commanding 24-0 lead.

"My leg's all taped up, but when you see the end zone it gets the adrenaline rolling and the stadium got quiet for a couple seconds," Thomas said. "We always say when we get a turnover that's the beginning of the play."

Thomas' touchdown preceded the Steelers crossing the 50-yard line for the first time all game with 5:59 elapsed in the third quarter on a 27-yard Roethlisberger pass to Nate Washington down to the Baltimore 35-yard line.

"A very pitiful performance," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "I accept full responsibility for that. They outcoached us."

Overall, the Ravens thoroughly confused the Steelers' offensive line with a myriad of blitz packages along with old-fashioned penetration from their front four.

Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said he didn't unveil many of his intricate blitz schemes, estimating that he brought extra defenders after Roethlisberger roughly 50 percent of the time. "My signature game, I don't know about that," Ryan said. "We rushed four guys, we rushed three guys and then we sent a lot of people. We've got to give credit to the back end, they did a tremendous job."

Baltimore only allowed 36 total yards in the first half and limited the Steelers to 21 rushing yards for the game on 11 carries for a 1.9 average per carry. Running back Willie Parker only gained 22 yards on 10 carries after entering the game with 893 yards.

Wide receiver Hines Ward was limited to four catches for 33 yards with Ivy, playing his third game since lacerating his kidney last month against the Denver Broncos, shadowing him often in single coverage.

"They kept blitzing, they kept blitzing, they kept blitzing," Parker said. "They were blitzing out of formations they weren't supposed to be blitzing out of."

In a rivalry defined by nastiness and competition, the one-sided nature marked a major departure. The Steelers are all but mathematically eliminated from defending their Vince Lombardi trophy.

"This was embarrassing," Ward said. "This was maybe our worst game ever. We laid an egg. It almost seemed like they wanted it more than us." Four of the Steelers' first six drives ended in three-and-outs as Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and completed just 21 of 41 passes for 214 yards and a 46.2 passer rating. He leads the NFL with 19 interceptions, and Baltimore leads the league with 20 interceptions. The Ravens improved to 27-4 when they score on defense, holding the Steelers to just three first downs in the first half. "They didn't stand a chance," Suggs said. "We just had to keep our foot on their throats." It marked the first game back in three weeks for middle linebacker Ray Lewis since suffering a back injury. He registered six tackles and sacked Roethlisberger once.

"It's just great to have 52 back," Ryan said. "He just energized the whole team." Since Billick took over play-calling duties after firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, the Ravens have won every week and have scored 35, 26, 27, 24 and 27 points.

McNair efficiently completed 18 of 24 passes for one touchdown and no interceptions for a 102.8 passer rating. On the opening drive, he connected on four of four passes for 51 yards, capping it with a 20-yard touchdown toss to Heap several yards behind cornerback DeShea Townsend. Jamal Lewis rushed for 66 yards, and Heap caught seven passes for 58 yards and his early score. As more evidence of the Ravens' dominance, they were able to relieve McNair with backup Kyle Boller with just over nine minutes remaining.

Now, the Ravens have to quickly reset their sights toward the Bengals. Following the Ravens' 26-20 victory Nov. 5, Cincinnati wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh insisted that the Bengals were the superior team despite the outcome. "We look like world beaters," Pryce said. "It's a great feeling to have, but we have to play in 72 hours."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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