Ravens run roughshod over Steelers' defense

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens mercilessly pounded the Pittsburgh Steelers on the ground, humbling the NFL's top-ranked defense behind the legs of two obscure running backs. By the conclusion of Sunday's 27-21 victory in the season finale at M&T Bank Stadium, Musa Smith and Cory Ross were no longer a secret as they excelled in the absence of star running back Willis McGahee.

During his first NFL start after five injury-plagued seasons, Smith rumbled for a career-high 83 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Smith ran past and through linebackers, grinding out yards with impressive power.

McGahee was out with fractured ribs.

"It's been a long season, but I got my shot," said Smith, who ended the previous three seasons on injured reserve with leg and neck injuries. "I just wanted to show my teammates and this organization that stuck behind me through all the years and the injuries that I could step up and play. In the preseason, I would play a half and get my touches, but it felt good to play the whole game."

The Ravens (5-11) rushed for 180 yards on 40 carries for their highest rushing total against the Steelers in the dozen years of their existence. It was their most rushing yards for Baltimore since a Dec. 19, 2005 win over the Green Bay Packers.

"It was great to see those two young people get an opportunity," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of Smith and Ross. "Next man up."

Pittsburgh entered the game with the league's third-ranked run defense, allowing just 82.9 rushing yards per contest, but didn't have an answer for the Ravens' running game.

"We make no excuses," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We need to be where we're supposed to be. And we need to tackle better."

Smith's breakthrough wasn't entirely unexpected considering he arrived in Baltimore as a third-round draft pick out of Georgia anointed as Jamal Lewis' future successor until injuries derailed his prospects.

A reserve return specialist by trade, Ross was a different matter altogether.

The diminutive former undrafted free agent from Nebraska rushed for a career-high 72 yards on a dozen carries that represented the first time the 5-foot-6, 201-pounder had touched the football as a running back in two NFL seasons. Ross ascooted past defenders on an exciting 32-yard run for his first NFL touchdown.

"Cory Ross was a big surprise," wide receiver Devard Darling said.

In particular, Ross' performance seemed to resonate with teammates because of his unassuming nature and his strong work ethic on the practice field.

"I felt like when he scored, I scored," quarterback Troy Smith said. "Cory Ross is an incredible player. I don't care about size or how big he is or whatever. He's an incredible athlete, and he should get a chance to make plays.

"With him being the guy that he is, he will get that chance. Just speaks volumes for the character of this team."

Ross ducked behind offensive linemen a foot taller than him, eluding defenders who had difficulty tracking him down as he froze the Steelers' pursuit with sharp cuts.

"I am who I am," Ross said. "The way that the offensive line blocked, it was easy. I play against a defense, which includes Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, everyday. It's not like I'm just going out there and going through the motions.

"I'm giving them a look. When I got out there, it was easy. I'm going against guys of our caliber."

On the touchdown, Ross never gave the Steelers a chance to react to his aggressive style.

It was a trend the Ravens followed all game long.

"It was a stretch play, I had a read to the outside, and I saw a crease and I hit it real hard," Ross said. "First thing I thought is that I'm not going to give this guy a chance, and that's the way it happened."

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

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