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Scout's Eye

Ravens' intensity, trench play uproot Steelers

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Recent posts by Nolan Nawrocki

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Posted Sept. 12, 2011 @ 3:32 a.m. ET
By Nolan Nawrocki

The Steelers looked like they didn't know what hit them.

The Ravens thoroughly controlled the line of scrimmage — on both sides of the ball — in a 35-7 rout of their hated AFC North rival in Baltimore on Sunday.

The offensive line kept Dick LeBeau's vaunted pass rush in check all day despite the absence of OL coach Andy Moeller (out with a two-week suspension) and the relatively late addition of OLT Bryant McKinnie, who has shed 30 pounds since he reported to camp. He used his massive frame well to shore up a glaring vulnerability on the Ravens' preseason line and allow Ray Rice extra room to run.

Most impressive against Pittsburgh was the tenacity of arguably the best defensive line in football, featuring underrated run stuffer Cory Redding and dominant interior force Haloti Ngata, who ragdolled an overmatched Steelers offensive line, especially vulnerable at right guard, where Doug Legursky needed extra help and left C Maurkice Pouncey stretched thin any time the disruptive Terrell Suggs looped inside and wreaked havoc on Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger clearly was not ready for the onslaught he faced, as he tossed three interceptions and lost two fumbles, accounting for five of the Steelers' seven turnovers. The well-coached Ravens did not turn over the ball once in what traditionally is one of the most physical battles in football.

This contest was marked by many after-the-whistle skirmishes and big hits, including a Hines Ward decleating as he crossed the middle into the awaiting spring in Jarret Johnson's legs. Redding, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard all were involved in post-whistle activity as the Ravens showed they will not be intimidated in football's most intensely competitive, blue-collar, bruising division. If the Ravens can continue matching the intensity level they showed against Pittsburgh, they will dominate the division.

• 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh also rang in a victory thanks to the game-breaking speed of Ted Ginn Jr., who returned a kickoff and punt for TDs on successive Niners possessions to open up a two-TD lead that crushed the Seahawks' second-half momentum. Harbaugh was the only one of five new head coaches in 2011 to earn a Week One victory. Leslie Frazier, Jason GarrettMike Munchak and Ron Rivera all fell by a touchdown or less and Pat Shurmur's Browns lost to the Bengals by 10 thanks to a late TD run by Cedric Benson. The league's other two new skippers, John Fox and Hue Jackson, face each other for a win on Monday night.

• After Week One, the NFC South is officially 0-4 thanks to the strong play of an improved NFC North. However, no division may be under more scrutiny or sink to greater depths this season than the AFC South. Many evaluators have surmised that the Colts would field a 4-12 team without Peyton Manning, and if surgery keeps him out of the lineup, it looks like they just might drop from the top of the division to the bottom, perhaps justifying their star quarterback's monster contract. It also might justify why Bill Polian was scouting the Stanford-Duke game live this weekend, getting a closeup view of the 2012 draft's top prize, Andrew Luck.

• Manning's absence has to be a very welcome relief for the GMs in Houston (Rick Smith) and Jacksonville (Gene Smith), both of whom might need to capture the division to maintain their jobs. After running up 34 unanswered points on the Colts in the first half, the Texans clearly look like the class of the division. Much improved was the defensive side of the ball, which continually brought more pressure under the direction of Wade Phillips. Mario Williams continues to adapt to the outside linebacker position and rung up two sacks and a forced fumble in his modified role. The tenacity and motor of rookie DE J.J. Watt appeared to set the tempo for the defense and rub off on his linemates, who never allowed Kerry Collins to get comfortable in the pocket or sustain drives the way Manning so capably does.

• Top drafted rookies have been thrust into the starting lineup increasingly in recent years, and this year's top five are off to a fast start. Top overall pick Cam Newton, fresh off unseating Jimmy Clausen for the starting QB job in Carolina, produced a record-breaking performance. Von Miller, set to face the Raiders Monday night, showed excellent bend and burst in the preseason, ringing up three sacks, topped only by Niners' seventh overall pick Aldon Smith and Browns LB Auston English. Marcell Dareus has been a solid anchor on the Bills' defensive line. A.J. Green has shown flashes of greatness in Cincinnati, including grabbing his first TD catch on an unsuspecting Joe Haden, who, like the rest of the Browns' defense, had not finished aligning. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson produced what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown in a 28-21 win over the Panthers with an 89-yard punt return. Most sensational of all, however, was the effort of Newton, who rewrote the rookie record books with 422 passing yards in his first start. PFW surveyed three veteran NFL evaluators for their reaction to the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner's first outing:

"Don't forget — it was just Week One and teams will figure him out. He's a very raw talent. He put up big numbers and had a few nice throws, but there also were noticeable blown coverages. Managing him is the key. Nobody doubted his physical talent, but you can't win in this league on ability alone. The jury's still out on how he's going to respond to losing, prepare 17 weeks and develop."

"He looked very stiff running the ball in the preseason and does not look like he can protect himself when he runs. The kid from Virginia Tech (Ravens 2011 sixth-rounder Tyrod Taylor) was a better quarterback in the preseason. Put him on Auburn, and he would have won the Heisman. … (Against the Cardinals, Newton) showed improved footwork in the pocket and nice deep ball touch. Arizona had some breakdowns deep, but he did find them — that's for sure."

"It was one game against a bad football team with secondary issues. Did they win? It's going to get interesting soon."

The biggest question about Newton was not his arm or athletic talent, both of which he has in abundance, but how he would respond in the face of adversity. With defensive stalwart Jon Beason leaving the game with injury and appearing as if he will miss extended time, his void could change the leadership dynamics of the team and place more of the onus on Newton.

• The Bears' playmakers showed up against Atlanta, as Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Jay Cutler, Matt Forté and Devin Hester all created big plays. Perhaps not as expected to outsiders was the encouraging play of Henry Melton, who finally gave the Bears the inside burst that has been missing since Tommie Harris' Pro Bowl years. Melton's ability to knife into the backfield continually disrupted the timing of the Falcons' offense.

• Just when it looked like Tony Romo had matured and learned to become a better caretaker of the ball, he lost a fumble yards before the goal line as the Cowboys were set to take a two-TD lead late in the fourth quarter. He collapsed again on the Cowboys' final two drives, throwing an ill-advised interception into coverage and fumbling a snap on the final comeback drive, showing he's not yet in sync with new center Phil Costa. And that is not mentioning the touchdown he threw to Miles Austin, which initially was intercepted by Antonio Cromartie before the physical Austin outwrestled the ball from Cromartie's grasp as they fell onto the ground.   

• The Chargers were able to escape Minnesota with a victory, but the expected season-ending losses of DE Luis Castillo (fractured tibia) and PK Nate Kaeding (torn ACL) could have a very negative effect on defense and special teams. San Diego was able to overcome a great number of defensive injuries last season under the direction of Ron Rivera, and new coordinator Greg Manusky will be expected to lock and reload the same way.

• Also hit hard by injury were the Rams, who lost Steven Jackson after he pulled up lame on his 47-yard TD run; Danny Amendola to a dislocated elbow and Sam Bradford to a finger injury resulting from hitting a helmet. Josh McDaniels has a strong working history with backup quarterbacks, having shown he could extract the most out of Matt Cassel when Tom Brady went down in Week One in 2008 when McDaniels coached in New England. But where the Rams were once considered the front-runners in the division, they will be fighting an uphill battle with A.J. Feeley at the helm and could become active in the market for David Garrard should Bradford's injury prove to be serious. The bad news for Bradford, Feeley, Garrard or whoever might be quarterbacking the Rams — the lack of offensive weapons was noticeable early in the 31-13 loss to the Eagles and will take time to develop with a very young receiving corps.

Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler, both heavily criticized for their on-field demeanor and body language, appeared composed and confident as both commanded victories over teams regarded as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Knocking off the Giants was no small task either, and newly named Redskins starter Rex Grossman was surprisingly consistent in his debut as Mike Shanahan's quarterback. No passer in the league carries a more Jekyll-and-Hyde reputation than Grossman, however, and not even Shanahan, one of the game's finest QB mentors, may be able to keep Grossman in line.

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