Retooled Ravens celebrate 'a whole new year'
BALTIMORE—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.
Against the Jets, Baltimore scored three touchdowns on defense and allowed only seven first downs to hit the first quarter of the season tied with five teams for the best record in the AFC.
"We can't ask for anything else," Lewis said.
Moments after the Jets game, there was an aura of cautious confidence in the locker room.
"We feel good," center Matt Burk said.
"Certainly we wish we were 4-0, but we're 3-1. We take pride in what we've done to this point, but when we come back from the bye it's a whole new deal. There's still a long, long way to go in this thing. They didn't pass out the Lombardi Trophy after this game. Good teams get better as the season goes. We'll see where this thing goes and where this journey takes us."
The goal is to get to Indianapolis, site of the Super Bowl, and the easiest way to get there is to play at home leading up to the game.
The Ravens were eliminated at Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2010, and in 2009 their postseason run ended in Indianapolis.
Baltimore has won 12 of its past 13 at home, including two this season in which it outscored the two participants in the 2010 AFC title game by a combined 45 points.
"We're only going to get better, but getting better is a choice. It's based on how hard we decide to work," coach John Harbaugh said. "I'm excited, I'm proud of these guys, yet, hey, we have a long way to go."