Playing with the confidence and poise that figures to relieve pressure from a perennially stout but overworked defense, the 2003 NFL co-MVP led a long touchdown drive after the opening kickoff and spent the rest of Sunday enjoying Ray Lewis & Co. at their best in a 27-0 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“This team knows what I can do. It’s the people that’s outside looking in that don’t know,” said McNair, obtained from Tennessee in a trade after the Titans decided he no longer fit their plans. “I’m still able to play this game to a high level.”
Chris McAlister returned one of the Ravens’ three interceptions 61 yards for a touchdown and 340-pound rookie Haloti Ngata lumbered 60 yards with a tipped pass to set up a field goal to help build a 17-0 halftime lead.
Baltimore (1-0) won on the road for the first time since beating the New York Jets 20-17 in overtime on Nov. 14, 2004, ending an 11-game skid that was the longest in the NFL. The Bucs (0-1) were shut out at home for the first time since 1996 after going 77 games without being blanked.
“We had a mind-set just to come play our type of football and we did,” Lewis said. “Our offense, you have to tip your hats to them. They came out first drive, and they made life easy for us.”
McNair completed 17 of 27 passes for 181 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions against the league’s No. 1 defense from last season. The only time he was sacked, the three-time Pro Bowl selection lost the grip on the ball attempting to pass and fell on the fumble.
The Ravens sacked Chris Simms twice, limited Carnell “Cadillac” Williams to 22 yards rushing on eight carries and held Simms’ favorite target, speedy receiver Joey Galloway, without a catch. The Bucs managed just 142 yards total offense.
“We fell behind,” Williams said, “and things just fell apart.”
Jamal Lewis scored on a 4-yard run in the first quarter and McAlister returned his interception for a 14-0 lead on the first play of the second. Ngata’s first career pick led to Matt Stover’s field goal, and Ed Reed finished the raid on Simms’ errant passes with a fourth-quarter interception that led to McNair’s 4-yard TD pass to Daniel Wilcox.
Simms was 17-of-29 for 133 yards and was benched by coach Jon Gruden midway through the fourth quarter. Rookie Bruce Gradkowski replaced him to cheers from what was left of a crowd of 65,087. The sixth-round draft pick was no match for the Ravens either.
The Bucs could have avoided a shutout by kicking a field goal late in the third quarter, but elected to try for a touchdown when Simms threw an incompletion on fourth-and-4 from the Baltimore 6.
“A loss is a loss,” Simms said, shrugging off the final score. “We could have kicked a field goal just to say we weren’t shut out. … We’ll be back. We’re not going to let one game ruin our season.”
Baltimore struggled to move the ball after McNair directed a 14-play, 80-yard drive that lasted more than nine minutes. But with the Ravens’ defense re-energized with Ray Lewis back in the lineup after missing most of 2005 with an injury, the outcome was never in doubt.
McAlister picked off an underthrown ball intended for Anthony Becht and returned the interception up the sideline, racing into the end zone with help from a convoy of blockers that prevented Williams—the last player with a chance to stop him—from making the tackle.
Ngata, the Ravens’ first-round draft pick, intercepted a pass tipped by linebacker Bart Scott. He took off for the sideline, turned the corner and rumbled up field before running out of gas and being forced out of bounds at the Bucs 9.
“I never ran that far. I think that explains why I ran out of bounds,” Ngata said. “I was looking for somebody to pitch it to, but I didn’t feel like I could. I saw blockers in front of me, so I just kept running.”
Ray Lewis sat out the last 10 games of 2005 with a hamstring injury that required surgery, and Baltimore stumbled to a 6-10 record, missing the playoffs. His return, coupled with McNair’s arrival, are the main reasons the Ravens think they have a chance to contend for a championship.
“It’s one step,” the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year said. “We’re not claiming nothing else. We’ll go back and watch film Monday and then we restart again.”
The Ravens won a season opener for the first time since 2001. … McNair is 3-0 in games he’s started against Tampa Bay. … The Bucs played without injured middle linebacker Shelton Quarles (groin) and starting guards Dan Buenning (ankle) and Davin Joseph (knee).