PITTSBURGH — Halfway through the first quarter, the overwhelmed Baltimore Ravens probably thought they were playing today’s Steelers and all of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl stars of the past.
Turns out they were.
Ben Roethlisberger tied the Steelers’ single-game record with five touchdown passes in the first half and Pittsburgh put on a Steel Curtain-like defensive show forcing four turnovers before halftime in a 38-7 victory over Baltimore on Monday night.
The Ravens (4-4) had a chance to tie for the AFC North lead by beating the Steelers (6-2) for a fourth straight time dating to 2005.
In reality, they had no chance at all. Not with all the big names — Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw — who gathered to celebrate the Steelers’ 75th season, whooping it up and pounding each others’ backs with every big hit and turnover.
“It was a magical night to have those guys come and show their support,” said Hines Ward, himself a member of the Steelers’ all-time team that was honored at halftime. “You want to put on a show for those guys.”
The Steelers forced three fumbles in the first quarter, with James Harrison hitting All-Pro safety Ed Reed so hard on a punt return the ball flew nearly 15 feet before Pittsburgh recovered. Four plays later, Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes for 15 yards on the first of their two opening-half touchdown pass plays and a 14-0 Steelers lead. Holmes had 110 yards on four receptions.
Right about then, it was becoming obvious this wouldn’t be a repeat of Baltimore’s two routs of the Steelers by scores of 31-7 and 27-0 a season ago.
Then, Roethlisberger was sacked 14 times and threw four interceptions.
This time he was near perfect, going 13-of-16 for 209 yards with no interceptions.
“I wouldn’t even know how to begin to characterize this,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “I’m just glad it’s a short week and we don’t have time to dwell on this.”
Harrison, a non-drafted free agent once cut by Baltimore, became a starter this season after former Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter was released. He seemed to torment Ravens quarterback Steve McNair on nearly every down.
Harrison had two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and interception and 2½ sacks before halftime in a Jack Lambert-like performance. Lambert, coincidentally, was one of the few members of the Steelers’ 75th anniversary all-time team who didn’t attend.
“I haven’t seen anyone play a game like that since high school — not in college or the NFL,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “But we knew we were going to dominate. You could just tell in practice.”
Harrison could tell when the game started.
“To tell you the truth, it seemed like everything was working,” Harrison said. “It was a little more satisfying because it was Baltimore and they cut me.”
Former coach Bill Cowher got the crowd going by making a previously unannounced on-field appearance shortly before the opening kickoff as a steady rain fell.
Once they got started, the Steelers lived up to coach Mike Tomlin’s pregame prediction they would feed off the noise and enthusiasm.
“Coach Tomlin said all week the team that was more physical would win,” Ward said. “Last year Ben got beat up against them but today we were more physical.”
Harrison’s hard hit caused Steve McNair to fumble on Baltimore’s first possession and Harrison recovered himself at the 20. Roethlisberger responded by stepping out of the Ravens’ pass rush to hit tight end Heath Miller on a 17-yard scoring pass midway through the first quarter.
A familiar pattern then settled in: the Ravens would turn the ball over, and the Steelers would score in a hurry as Roethlisberger also threw two TD passes to backup Nate Washington.
Harrison and Anthony Smith forced another fumble apiece, and Harrison jumped a McNair pass for an interception. McNair was 13-of-22 for 63 yards before being pulled in the fourth quarter, about the time the early departing fans from the crowd of 63,457 were creating a huge traffic jam around Heinz Field.
“It ain’t hard to correct what’s wrong. Just don’t turn the ball over and make people beat us,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “They got the ball four times inside the 30. You can’t do that and play championship football.”
It was a bad night all around for the Ravens. Running back Willis McGahee was pulled with a concussion after gaining 50 yards on 12 carries, and will be evaluated today.
Roethlisberger, still in the game with the Steelers holding a 28-point lead, was pushed to the turf by Terrell Suggs on a 45-yard completion to Holmes in the third quarter, but returned early in the fourth quarter after having his right hip examined. His five TD throws gave him a career-record 20 in half a season, two more than his previous single-season high of 18.
“It’s OK, I’m fine,” he said after the game.
• Bradshaw (Nov. 15 1981, at Atlanta) and Mark Malone (Sept. 8, 1985, against Indianapolis) were the other Steelers QBs to throw five TD passes in a game.
• Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass for a 13th consecutive game, breaking Bradshaw’s previous team record of 12. ... Pittsburgh has a 119-26 scoring edge in winning its four home games.
• Baltimore’s offense has scored only nine touchdowns in eight games.
• The Steelers have won their last 12 Monday night homes games dating to a 1991 loss to the Giants.
• Steelers RB Willie Parker, held to 51 yards in two games by Baltimore last season, had 42 yards on 23 carries.
• Roethlisberger has 20 TD passes and six interceptions in half a season; a season ago, he tied for the NFL lead with 23 interceptions.