- Associated Press - Saturday, October 8, 2011

BALTIMORE (AP) - Thirty minutes into the first game of the season, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis stood before his teammates and delivered an inspirational and insightful speech that set the tone for the entire season.

Baltimore held a 21-7 lead over the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the identical score at halftime of their playoff game in Pittsburgh nine months earlier. In that one, the Ravens came apart in a 31-24 defeat.

Lewis placed himself in the middle of the locker room and emphatically spiked the comparison.

“Everybody was saying, ‘We’ve been here before,’” Lewis said. “And I was like, ‘We haven’t been here before, because 2010 is 2010, and 2011 is a whole new year.’ If you understand it that way, then you understand that this is a new team.”

And so it is. The retooled Ravens went on to hammer the Steelers 35-7, and they enter this Sunday’s bye with a 3-1 record, alone atop the AFC North and charging toward a fourth straight playoff appearance.

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome retooled the team during a whirlwind offseason shortened by the NFL lockout.

Almost every move he made has thus far appeared to be the right one, beginning with a salary cap purge of wide receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap, running back Willis McGahee, defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and fullback Le’Ron McClain.

At this point in the season, the Ravens don’t miss any of them. Not even a little bit.

Ricky Williams has proven to be a capable backup to running back Ray Rice; Lee Evans and second-round draft pick Torrey Smith have made up for the loss of Mason; Vonta Leach is an upgrade from McClain; Terrence Cody has proven to be just as immovable on the line as Gregg; and the tight end tandem of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta has made it easy for Ravens fans to scrap the “HEAP!” cheer that resonated throughout M&T Stadium for the past decade.

Newsome also added safety Bernard Pollard and a pair of offensive linemen who made an immediate difference.

The signing of free agent tackle Bryant McKinnie enabled Michael Oher to move back to the right side _ where he is more effective _ and free agent guard Andre Gurode has been invaluable during Ben Grubbs’ absence with turf toe.

Oh, and the defense under first-year coordinator Chuck Pagano has been spectacular.

As Lewis said, this is indeed a new team. And it’s not outlandish to believe the Ravens could become even more formidable with the sooner-than-later return of Evans (ankle injury) and cornerbacks Chris Carr (hamstring) and Jimmy Smith (ankle).

“The scary part is, I think we can only get better,” Rice said. “What you’re seeing is a token of hard work. Guys are not afraid to work.”

The Ravens aren’t good enough to just show up and win. That was proven in Week 2, when they followed up their emotional victory over the Steelers with a 23-13 defeat at Tennessee. Then came a 37-7 rout in St. Louis and a surprisingly easy 34-17 win over the New York Jets.

Story Continues →