BALTIMORE -- On a positive note, the fellas on the Steelers kickoff receiving team already have qualified for their 2011 varsity letters.
But even that came with a stinging slap of reality: When the opposition kicks off seven times, as the old NFL adage goes, you stink.
Momma said there'd be days like this, days when your offense has more turnovers than the neighborhood bakery, but if you're looking this morning for something to be really unsettled about regarding Mike Tomlin's team -- and admit it, you always are -- it's that the Steelers iconic run defense has apparently installed an E-ZPass lane.
"We've played against this team a lot, everybody knows," Ravens running back Ray Rice was saying soon after Baltimore settled into the inside track of the AFC North Division race with a 35-7 torturing of the Steelers. "But what our offensive line did today, that was an executed beating, and it felt good. There were no trick plays, nothin' tricky about it."
No, when you look at Baltimore tackle Bryant McKinnie, who is 6 feet 8 and 360 pounds (or exactly two Domonique Foxworths, by the way), the strategic football mind does not race toward trickeration.
"On the first play of the game, me and [Ben] Grubbs had a double block on the linebacker [James Harrison] and that really set a tone," said McKinnie, who insisted he was not all of 400 pounds when Baltimore signed him as a free agent from Minnesota. "Our offensive line, probably a lot of people were doubting us. We hadn't played much together but the communication between us has been tremendous."
On that first play, Rice glided to his left through a hole you could have led an elephant through, and suddenly the same 11 players who last season comprised the greatest run defense in Steelers history by allowing a scant 62.8 yards per game had yielded 57 percent of that on one snap.
Rice's 36-yard run set up the first Baltimore touchdown, and his 107-yard performance reminded every student of this series that Ray Rice appears to be the only man on earth who can get 100 against this defense. He was the previous person to do so, ripping it for 141 yards on Dec. 27, 2009.
But don't be fooled by Rice into thinking the Ravens did nothing to fool the Steelers. Baltimore's offensive coaches led by Cam Cameron were giving Dick LeBeau's guys vertigo all game, scoring five times on the Ravens first eight purposeful possessions (other than the one they used to run out the first-half clock).
"They definitely controlled the line of scrimmage," said Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who was victimized one-on-one by Rice for the 11-yard Joe Flacco pass that made it 21-7. "They did a good job with play-action and when you do that, you can confuse the defense."
Confused was one of the kinder adjectives being thrown at a defense that hadn't allowed 30 points or more since ... OK, the Super Bowl ... but Timmons at least understood what had happened in hindsight.
"When they were in max protect," he said, for example, "[Flacco] was not going to hold the ball; if he didn't see what he wanted he was getting it to the backs right away. If he saw two [defensive backs] high, he was gonna run the ball. He didn't let us get to him. He got the ball out quick.
"I tip my hat to them; they did a great job."
Larry Foote, who worked an unusually long shift in the base defense for James Farrior, said what Steelers defenders often do when they allow big plays.
"That first play was a misfit," Foote said, meaning the defense was simply not in position. "But they definitely had our number in the ground game. We know how good Rice is, and Ricky Williams got some good yards too."
Together they had 31 carries for 170 yards, or nearly three times what this exact same defense yielded in a typical 2010 episode.
"You say to yourself, 'You're better than that,' but really, how do you know?" said safety Ryan Clark. "This isn't last year. Just because you're behind 21-7 at half just like you were in the AFC [playoff] game, you can't assume you'll come out and turn it around."
Ben Roethlisberger and company came out and threw gas on this Ravens fire at just about every second-half opportunity, but the images that will linger from the first opener the Steelers have lost in nine years are of a defense that looked virtually uncompetitive, particularly on third down.
On the way to its third touchdown, which punctuated a 12-play, 84-yard drive, Baltimore converted on third-and-1 (a 13-yard run by Rice), third-and-6 (a 14-yard pass to tight end Ed Dickson), third-and-6 again (a 25-yard pass to Rice), and third-and-6 yet again (the 11-yard touchdown pass to Rice).
"We let them out of crucial third-down situations," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "When you let a team like this out of crucial third-down situations, they go down there and put points on the scoreboard."
Where else would they put them?
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org .