Ravens routed by Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- The football was treated as if it were a radioactive object as a costly fumbling epidemic, a deadly-accurate Ben Roethlisberger and a scourge named James Harrison steamrolled the Baltimore Ravens. Veteran quarterback Steve McNair resembled a raw rookie, totally dazed and confused by the Pittsburgh Steelers' unrelenting defense as he fumbled twice and threw an interception.

A grand tradition of sound tackling degenerated into a lost art form during this debacle.

And a woefully shorthanded secondary playing without starting cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle due to a knee injury and an undisclosed illness, respectively, was absolutely scorched by a superior receiving corps, continually exploited by Roethlisberger as he delivered a career-high five touchdown passes.

In an embarrassing display witnessed by the entire nation, the Ravens (4-4) completely unraveled against the archrival, first-place Steelers (6-2) in a 38-7 rout Monday night before 63,457 at Heinz Field that avenges last season's dominance by Baltimore.

"I won't justify it, I won't try to explain it," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who admitted he needs to call better plays. "They'll be disappointed. They're going to be embarrassed. We all are, but this team has a lot of faith in itself and they'll get ready for the next opponent."

This marks the second-most lopsided defeat in franchise history, only surpassed by a 37-0 loss to the Steelers in 1997.

The Ravens tied a team record for the fewest first downs in team history with five, setting a record for the fewest net yards in team history with 104, tying a team mark for most touchdown passes allowed in a game.

Despite having 15 days to prepare for this pivotal encounter during their bye, the Ravens looked completely unprepared one year removed from sweeping Pittsburgh by a combined 58-7 margin. It didn't matter that the Ravens' offensive line was finally healthy with tackles Jonathan Ogden, Adam Terry and center Mike Flynn returning from injuries.

This marks the Ravens' first loss in the past six games following a bye in the Billick era. "Embarrassed as a competitor, yeah," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "More or less, you're disappointed in how you played as a whole. We're disappointed in how we started the game and how we dug ourselves a hole.

"In order to get ourselves out of this situation we've got to back on the field quickly, rectify everything that went wrong and try to pull out a victory next week."

Apparently, the Steelers' brass knew what it was doing when it planned a homecoming tribute for their 75th anniversary all-time team. Playing against a Pittsburgh team proudly sporting its throwback uniforms, this one got so ugly it was as if the Ravens were trying to compete with Steelers legends Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene in their prime.

This setback severely damages the Ravens' already shaky playoff outlook.

The defending AFC North champions were clinging to a precarious toehold in the division. Now, Baltimore is winless against all three division opponents as it lost its fifth consecutive prime-time game.

Mercifully, Roethlisberger was replaced in the second half backup Charlie Batch. By that time, though, he had completed 13 of 16 passes for 209 yards and five touchdowns.

He kept picking on the young cornerbacks. "We're supposed to lose at their field, now they got to come to Baltimore," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "For me, football season is just getting started. .. They had no success running the ball, but then they attack our young boys."

McNair was at the center of the self-destruction, haunted by two fumbles and an interception in the first half with the three turnovers leading directly to 21 points.

The four-time Pro Bowl quarterback was never able to avoid Harrison, an ultra-aggressive linebacker who was briefly on the Ravens' roster years ago.

Harrison, who's nicknamed "Silverback" by his teammates, forced and recovered both of McNair's fumbles and intercepted him once, finishing with nine tackles, three forced fumbles and 3 ½ sacks. Harrison was signed by Baltimore following the 2003 season and allocated to NFL Europe, but the Ravens cut him prior to the season.

For McNair, who has thrown just two touchdown passes since the final game of last season to go along with six lost fumbles and six interceptions since Dec. 31, 2006, it was yet another big-game meltdown. He fumbled three times in a season-opening loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

"We couldn't get nothing going, there's no one answer to solve this problem," McNair said. "We have to start all over again. It's frustrating, it's real frustrating. If you don't think it's embarrassing, you're not competitive. Of course when you get beat on national television, it's embarrassing, but you got to let it go."

McNair, 34, hadn't played since an Oct. 7 win over the San Francisco 49ers as he recuperated from back and groin injuries, but rust can't explain this disturbing performance.

McNair, who completed 13 of 22 passes for 63 yards, was benched in the fourth quarter and replaced by backup Kyle Boller.

"It's not the end of the world, it's not the time to panic," McNair said. "We need to have a sense of urgency to get things going. Offensively, we put too much pressure on our defense."

Billick reaffirmed that McNair remains the team's starter.

"Yep, absolutely," he said.

Harrison decked a scrambling McNair and scooped up the loose football at the Ravens' 20-yard line a few minutes into the first quarter.

Three plays later, Roethlisberger slipped away from the grasping fingers of defensive end Trevor Pryce to connect with tight end Heath Miller for a 17-yard touchdown.

Pryce, who was playing with a cast as he returned from a broken left wrist after missing five games, was unable to properly wrap up Roethlisberger.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs missed several tackles, too, with Roethlisberger eluding his grasp except for one sack.

McNair wasn't alone in his series of miscues. Free safety Ed Reed was body-slammed on a punt return by a familiar enemy: Harrison.

The forced fumble was recovered at the Ravens' 28-yard line.

Then, Roethlisberger displayed perfect touch on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. He easily beat rarely-used nickel back David Pittman.

Blitzing middle linebacker Ray Lewis was blocked into the ground by running back Willie Parker as the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year failed to pressure Roethlisberger.

Running back Willis McGahee kept up the comedy of errors, stripped in traffic by safety Troy Polamalu for a fumble that popped into the hands of safety Anthony Smith.

Three plays later, Nate Washington was on the receiving end of a 30-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to stake Pittsburgh to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.

Midway through the second quarter, McNair fumbled again on another Harrison sack. This time, it was recovered by McGahee.

Nonetheless, the Ravens' drive was going nowhere.

And Roethlisberger capitalized again, going after cornerback Derrick Martin up the right sidelines for a 35-yard touchdown pass to Holmes. It was an awful starting debut for Martin, who was forced into action due to Rolle being out and not making the trip to Pittsburgh.

"Yeah, Roethlisberger was on the money," Martin said. "He played well and I didn't. Sometimes, the quarterback would scramble and the receivers wold break their routes off and we would get beat. That's pretty much where they beat us the most."

The Steelers' shutout bid ended with 1:33 remaining in the first half on McGahee's 33-yard touchdown run.

It was a meaningless score, though.

By halftime, the Ravens had generated only three first downs and 69 net yards. Conversely, the Steelers produced 11 first downs, 191 yards of total offense.

When asked if the players are still responding to Billick's direction, Mason replied: "I think we do. Not responding means going out there and not competing. The coaches can't do anything about the turnovers. That's upon the players to go out and protect the ball. We just didn't do that as a whole. You just can't blame that on one guy."

Roethlisberger had a nearly perfect quarterback rating in the first half with a 155.1 mark, completing 11 of his first 14 passes for 164 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

Minutes after the Steelers left the field at intermission, the Steelers held their celebration of their all-time team, marching out Bradshaw, Greene, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mel Blount and other luminaries.

It was another reminder of how far these struggling Ravens have to go to approach that level of excellence.

The Ravens aren't giving up on the playoffs, but acknowledged that it's going to be a tough goal to accomplish given their demanding schedule. "We can't put it out of our minds," Mason said. "To say we need to put the playoffs out of our minds would be giving up on the season."

NOTES: McGahee left the game with a concussion. ... Pittman left the game with a concussion and didn't return. … Return specialist Yamon Figurs left the game with a knee sprain and didn't return. ... Linebacker Prescott Burgess suffered a quad contusion. ...Offensive tackle Adam Terry left the game with leg cramps, but it wasn't regarded as serious. ... The Ravens deactivated McAlister (knee), Rolle, running backs Cory Ross and Mike Anderson, linebacker Antwan Barnes, tight ends Todd Heap (hamstring) and Daniel Wilcox (sprained toe) and quarterback Troy Smith. ... "I would rather make sure it's healed and not come back too early," Heap said. "I think that's what happened last time against St. Louis and it set me back again. I'm looking for no setbacks." ... Martin and Corey Ivy started at cornerback and Quinn Sypniewski started at tight end. ... The Ravens cut rookie linebacker Edgar Jones and promoted tight end Lee Vickers from the practice squad. ... The Steelers deactivated wide receiver Willie Reid, safety Ryan Clark (spleen), running back Gary Russell, offensive guard Darnell Stapleton, offensive tackle Trai Essex, tight end Jerame Tuman, defensive end Aaron Smith (knee) and former Baltimore quarterback Brian St. Pierre.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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