- Associated Press - Monday, September 12, 2011

OWINGS MILLS, MD. (AP) - Three straight playoff appearances wasn’t good enough for the Baltimore Ravens, who overhauled their roster during the offseason in an effort to become one of the elite teams in the AFC.

The result was on full display Sunday, when the Ravens manhandled the same team that ousted them from the playoffs only eight months earlier.

Baltimore’s 35-7 rout of the defending conference champion Pittsburgh Steelers offered proof that the 2011 Ravens aren’t only different from last year’s version, but possibly superior.

“This is just a start,” said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who had four catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. “We wanted to come out and make a statement, but we think we can only get better from here.”

It would seem difficult for the Ravens to improve upon their dominant performance in the opener, but it’s not impossible, either. Several of the newcomers _ including offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, center Andre Gurode and wide receiver Lee Evans _ have been with the team for less than a month. Running back Ricky Williams and safety Bernard Pollard were added to the mix in early August.

In the days leading up to the opener, coach John Harbaugh could only hope his team would come together and immediately play well.

“I don’t think you ever know how you’re going to go out and play the first game. We expected to win the game. We thought we had a chance to play really well,” Harbaugh said Monday. “But you never know until you go do it. That’s what you’re proud of as a coach. When you prepare the way they prepared, and then to take it to the field on Sunday, that’s a very rewarding thing for coaches and for players.

“But the challenge now is to build on it and improve. Because everyone else is going to improve.”

The Ravens will have to move forward without rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith, who sprained his left ankle on Baltimore’s first kickoff and will miss a few weeks, according to Harbaugh.

The Ravens were down to two cornerbacks for a time Sunday after Chris Carr was bothered by a hamstring strain and Cary Williams cramped up.

But Pittsburgh managed only one touchdown against a unit overseen by first-year coordinator Chuck Pagano. The Ravens have long been known for their defense, but never before Sunday had Baltimore forced seven turnovers in a single game.

“I think it’s different,” tackle Haloti Ngata said of Pagano’s philosophy. “You can see it’s more aggressive. He makes good calls, and he knew really well what Pittsburgh was trying to do.”

Ngata had a hand in three of those turnovers, Ed Reed had two interceptions, and Terrell Suggs kept constant pressure on nemesis Ben Roethlisberger. Suggs finished with three sacks to displace Peter Boulware as the Ravens‘ career leader.

Baltimore’s offense was just as impressive. The Ravens needed only three plays to reach the end zone in their opening possession, increased the margin to 14-0 after the first quarter and romped to their most lopsided victory in a series that began in 1996.

No longer is anyone questioning the decision by general manager Ozzie Newsome to dump veteran tight end Todd Heap, wide receiver Derrick Mason and running back Willis McGahee.

The tight end tandem of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta combined for seven receptions, 104 yards and a touchdown. Evans didn’t have a catch despite being targeted four times by quarterback Joe Flacco, but his presence as a deep threat cleared the middle of the field.

Lee opened up a couple crossing routes for us where he took the top off the coverage,” Harbaugh said. “If they don’t run with him, Joe is going to throw it to him. I think he had that type of an impact. He played well; he was a factor, no doubt.”

So was Ricky Williams, who ran 12 times for 63 yards and caught a pass out of the backfield. In addition, Vonta Leach, the replacement for departed free agent Le’Ron McClain, helped clear the way for Ray Rice to run for 107 yards.

“We got whipped in every facet of the game,” Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said. “There were the more physical team, the more aggressive team. They were the team more technically sound. They’re just the better team right now.”

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