The Ravens welcomed back an old friend in Sunday's 20-17 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the unbalanced offensive line that gave them so much success last year made an appearance.
Baltimore gouged the Steelers early by outmuscling them up front, then took to the air as the action unfolded at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens went to a jumbo package at times in the first half, inserting the mauling Marshal Yanda at right guard with the first team and bringing 315-pound guard Chris Chester, who had previously been starting there, in as an extra blocker.
The game plan was reminiscent of the way the Ravens pounded their opposition in 2008, when they finished as the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing attack by averaging 148.5 yards per game.
"That's the way you want to play when you're an offensive lineman," said Yanda. "We wanted to get after them up front. That's part of the game for us. That's what I love to do, get helmet-to-helmet and rattle them a little bit."
When Baltimore really wanted to add more push up front, 345-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata came on the field as a fullback/tight end.
Ngata was a critical piece in the Ravens' opening drive that yielded the team's first first-half touchdown since Week 4.
After forcing the Steelers to a three-and-out, the Ravens went 73 yards in nine plays – the biggest of which came on a 20-yard completion from quarterback Joe Flacco to wideout Mark Clayton – to set up a 2-yard touchdown by running back Willis McGahee.
Ngata was in the game for two plays, including McGahee's touchdown run that followed a failed pass to McGahee.
McGahee followed a Ngata block up the middle, as the massive defender took out two Steelers, to get McGahee into the end zone for his sixth rushing touchdown of the year.
"The goal line offense with Haloti sure helped, didn't it?" head coach John Harbaugh asked in his Monday news conference. "That power play works a little better with him in there, knocking people off the ball. He had a great block. Haloti is a talented guy, and I think we'll be seeing more of him in some different types of situations as we go."
Harbaugh wouldn't even rule out throwing to Ngata in a future game, as offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has practiced that play in the past.
"He's been calling for the ball already: 'Cam, give me the rock,'" Harbaugh joked. "That's what he says. He's done it before. He played rugby; you guys know that story."
By ratcheting up their physicality at the point of attack, the Ravens were able to run 12 times for an efficient 57 yards in the first half, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. And, that came against a club that came into the contest as the league's top-rated rushing defense.
It also showed the versatility of the Ravens' young core of offensive linemen.
"We think we have six starting offensive linemen, and obviously, that includes Marshal, and it includes Chris Chester and the rest of those guys," Harbaugh noted. "So how you mix and match them and who you play where, you try to put the best fit together that you can, and I thought that between Cam and John Matsko and the players, they figured that out pretty well, and it helped us against that front."
In the end, Baltimore came away with 132 total rushing yards, 88 of which went to running back Ray Rice. McGahee followed with five totes for 18 yards, and fullback Le'Ron McClain had four attempts for 28 yards.
For a team that had trouble moving the football on the ground in recent games – Baltimore failed to top 100 yards rushing as a team in four of the previous six contests heading into the Steelers showdown – getting back to what they do best helped the Ravens maintain their playoff aspirations.
Now, the Ravens have to increase their physicality in pass protection. Flacco was sacked five times and hit multiple others, including a sack-strip by Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
"We can be physical," Harbaugh said. "We try to be physical. If you watch the pass protection, I thought at times we were very physical with some of the help blocks. So, that's got to be our personality if we're going to be successful as a football team across the board."