Special offense

<b> PITTSBURGH -</b> Last season, the Steelers' offense ranked in the top three in team history in nearly every meaningful statistic. But if Sunday's victory over Baltimore showed anything, it is that the 2003 version of the Steelers' offense may be even better. The Steelers moved the ball with relative ease Sunday against a Baltimore defense considered one of the best in the NFL, putting up 34 before calling off the dogs midway through the fourth quarter.

And they made it look easy, especially through the air, with quarterback Tommy Maddox putting on a passing clinic. Maddox completed 21-of-29 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game when head coach Bill Cowher called off the dogs. He could very well have thrown for 400 yards in the contest. It was that easy.

Baltimore had no answer for the duo of Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, as the Steelers' starting wide receivers combined to catch 15 passes for 207 yards and two scores.

"I take my hat off to Maddox and their offense," said Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware. "They're tough with those wideouts. When we first started playing Pittsburgh, they ran the ball well. They still do that, but now they added another dimension where they can throw the ball. They've got an even attack that's tough to stop if you're not ready."

And if having Ward and Burress on the outside were not enough, now teams must also deal with tight end Jay Riemersma working the middle of the field.

After a relatively quiet preseason, Riemersma announced his presence with authority on a pair of third quarter touchdown passes.

Despite their first-half dominance, the Steelers led just 13-0 after two quarters, having to settle for two field goals and a touchdown in three trips inside the Baltimore 20.

On their fourth trip, Riemersma, who was signed as a free agent after being released by Buffalo as a salary cap casualty, showed why the Steelers felt the need to sign him.

Working against Baltimore's Pro Bowl strong safety Ed Reed, Riemersma juked to the outside, caught Reed flat-footed and blew by him to the inside. Maddox found the big tight end wide open down the middle of the field for a 20-yard touchdown pass.

"Jay Riemersma adds a dimension we never had," said Cowher. "He gives you a guy that you better start thinking about down the middle of the field. And we still have Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward."

If the Ravens forgot that, they were quickly reminded on the Steelers' next series, as Riemersma drew double coverage over the middle and Ward slipped into the secondary behind him to catch a 28-yard TD pass from Maddox.

"The safety came with me and the corner bit," said Riemersma, who had 204 career receptions and 20 touchdowns in seven seasons in Buffalo. "They left Hines (alone), which was what we wanted."

With Riemersma added to a package that includes versatile wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, the Steelers have an offensive package few teams can match.

"Somebody is going to take notice of us," said Ward. "We're not the best, but we really complement one another. And the addition of Jay is going to help Plax and I tremendously."

That is something that cannot be comforting to the rest of the league.

Here are some more thoughts from a reporter who wonders how all those people who picked the Ravens to win the AFC North feel now:

© There have been a lot of doomsdayers in regards to the Steelers over the past few weeks who have continually screamed about the sky falling.

Don't listen to the Chicken Littles out there. The Steelers are still the class of the AFC North, not that it's saying a whole lot.

© All of those people who picked the Ravens to win the division need to realize Baltimore's starting a rookie quarterback with very bad receivers. Baltimore may have the worst set of wideouts in the league this side of Arizona. It's not a good combination.

© That being said, those receivers drew three pass interference penalties and one defensive holding penalty on Steelers starting cornerbacks Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington. Hey fellas, you have to at least try to turn your head and make a play on the ball.

© Last week, Cowher raved about Scott's ball skills. Does Scott have ball skills? Yeah. Can he catch? After watching him drop a pair of easy interceptions Sunday, I would have to say no.

© Next week's opponent, Kansas City, doesn't have great wide receivers, either. But the Steelers' opponent this week does have Priest Holmes.

Holmes catches the ball out of the backfield better than Baltimore's Jamal Lewis and could tear this Steelers defense up.

The Steelers have always struggled with Holmes' cutback style, dating back to his days with the Ravens, and he's only gotten better.

Lewis hurt them some running the ball Sunday, Holmes will kill them if they don't get him before the cutback.

© Steelers guard Alan Faneca played a monster game. On one first-half play, Faneca absolutely blew Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis out of the way on a 12-yard Amos Zereoue run. Faneca was also the man who opened things up on Zereoue's nine-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.

© The Steelers played the dime defense just twice Sunday, giving up a first down on a third-and-11 in the first quarter with it, while stopping the Ravens the other time they had six defensive backs on the field.

That's a 50 percent success rate in the dime, pretty much the same as what they had last season.

Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis will likely stick with the nickel this week to combat Holmes and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

© Baltimore rookie linebacker Terrell Suggs embarrassed right tackle Todd Fordham on one first half play in which Forhdam gave the youngster too much respect to the outside and gave him an inside rush lane. Other than that play, however, the Steelers' offensive line was outstanding in pass protection. The Ravens obviously watched the preseason tapes of the Steelers and blitzed a lot. But after having trouble picking it up in August, the line and running backs were much better Sunday. They still struggled against the run, but Baltimore is very strong up front. Those rush lanes will open up.

© Amos Zereoue is maddening to watch at running back. Instead of taking a three-yard gain when a three-yard gain is all that is there to be had, Zereoue gives ground, looking for more. Zereoue needs to learn to take what the defense gives and live to run another day.

© Verron Haynes showed much better ability to hit the hole that was there quickly. But that fumble in the fourth quarter just can't happen.

It wasn't all Haynes' fault - nose tackle Kelly Gregg hit him a millisecond after he took the handoff from Charlie Batch - but he's got to wrap that ball up.

© Does Ravens' cornerback Chris McAlister have Plaxico Burress' name tattooed on his body somewhere. He should, because Burress owns him.

© Speaking of which, shouldn't Corey Fuller shut up already? If you're going to talk as much as Fuller does, shouldn't you at least make one play during a game? Fuller left Sunday's game with an injury. I believe he pulled a muscle in his mouth.

Dale Lolley

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