BALTIMORE, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Tommy Maddox passed for 154 yards in the first half Sunday, including touchdowns of 20 and nine yards to Plaxico Burress, and the Pittsburgh Steelers coasted to a 31-18 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in a battle for first place in the AFC North.
The win was the sixth in a row here for the Steelers (4-3), who have recovered from an 0-2 start.
Pittsburgh's defense, which ranked first in the league last year but entered Sunday's game 16th overall, forced five turnovers, including three interceptions of quarterback Jeff Blake.
Baltimore's regular starting quarterback Chris Redman was bothered by a lower back injury, giving Blake his first start of the season. Blake finished 29 of 50 for 298 yards and a touchdown along with the three interceptions and ran for another score.
"I don't think I was rusty," said Blake, who made his first start since Nov. 2000 when he played for New Orleans. "I just forced it at times instead of throwing the ball away."
"He had minimal or no reps (in practice) this week," Billick said of Blake. "I'm not making excuses for Jeff, but that's the toughest thing you can ask a quarterback to do is to take none of the reps during the course of the week and then come in and execute effectively."
Meanwhile, Maddox was razor sharp in the first half, completing his first 11 passes for 125 yards, including the touchdown passes to Burress. Maddox left the game briefly with a sprained left ankle midway through the third quarter and finished 18 of 24 for 172 yards with an interception.
"He (Maddox) was very crisp," Pittsburgh Coach Cowher said. "We opened it up early because we knew they would try and take the running game away. We wanted to try and keep them off balance early, and he made some good throws."
Burress caught five passes for 55 yards before he was ejected late in the first half for getting into a shoving match with Ravens safety James Trapp following an interception.
"Would you be angry if someone kicked you in the face?" Burress said. "Keeping your cool when someone's just stepped on your head with both feet is kind of hard to do. But I apologized to my coach and my teammates and I told myself that it will never happen again."
Burress has caught 23 passes for 342 yards and three scores since Maddox replaced Kordell Stewart as the Steelers' starting quarterback four games ago. In those four games with Maddox at the controls, the Steelers have scored at least 28 points. The 6-5 receiver had two catches for 21 yards and no touchdowns with Stewart.
Amos Zereoue filled in at running back for the injured Jerome Bettis, who has a sprained MCL in his left knee, and rushed for 53 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns for Pittsburgh.
"I knew I was going to get more carries today. I had to be ready," said Zereoue, who twice filled in for an injured Bettis last year in wins over Baltimore. "We had a balance going today and kept them off balance. We moved the ball well."
The Ravens (3-4) played their third straight game without star linebacker Ray Lewis, who has a partially dislocated left shoulder.
Pittsburgh quickly took control, scoring touchdowns on its first four possessions and building a 28-3 halftime lead.
"You saw what championship caliber football looked like in the first half," Billick said. "Our guys got schooled in the first half. They found out how far they have to go."
Maddox completed his first three passes for 31 yards on Pittsburgh's opening drive before Zereoue scored on a 35-yard run with the help of a solid block by fullback Dan Kreider 2:23 into the game.
On Baltimore's first possession, Blake completed five of his first six passes for 32 yards. But a 24-yard completion to tight end Todd Heap to the Pittsburgh 15 was negated by a holding call on tight end John Jones and Baltimore was forced to punt.
Maddox then completed four passes for 63 yards, including a 20-yard scoring toss to a diving Burress, to give the Steelers a 14-0 lead with 1:08 left in the first quarter.
Robert Tate fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Chris Hope recovered for the Steelers at the Baltimore 15. Three plays later, Maddox fired a nine-yard touchdown to Burress seven seconds into the second quarter.
Blake directed a 12-play, 70-yard drive which led to a 28-yard field goal by Matt Stover with 10:08 left in the half. Blake completed three passes for 38 yards and broke off two runs for 20 yards in the drive.
However, rookie Antwaan Randle El returned the ensuing kickoff 37 yards to the Baltimore 49. After completing his 11th straight pass, Maddox moved his arm forward as he was hit by linebacker Peter Boulware. The ball was jarred loose and rookie end Anthony Weaver recovered for the Ravens at the Baltimore 31. The play was challenged by Pittsburgh and reversed, making it an incompletion.
On the next play, rookie Verron Haynes ran around left end 20 yards to the Baltimore 11. Later on third and seven, Maddox fired a seven-yard completion to Terance Mathis to the one.
Zereoue then ran behind left guard for his second touchdown of the game, giving the Steelers a 28-3 lead with 5:21 left in the second quarter.
Pittsburgh threatened later in the half, but Trapp intercepted a pass by Maddox at the Baltimore 14 and returned it 11 yards before he was pushed out of bounds by Randle El. Trapp and Burress then became involved in an altercation which resulted in ejections.
"You understand the emotions in this game, and this is two teams where there is some dislike that exists there," Cowher said.
Baltimore started the third quarter with a 12-play, 72-yard drive which lasted more than six minutes as Blake completed five of seven for 61 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown to Jones. Blake then tossed the two-point conversion to Todd Heap.
"We just put ourselves in too big a hole in the first half," Heap said. "We made too many mistakes that we couldn't bounce back from."
Maddox turned his ankle as he threw his first pass in the second half and left the game, but returned in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh's defense came up with a big play when Dewayne Washington intercepted a pass intended for Brandon Stokley and returned it 28 yards to the Baltimore 25. That set up a 34-yard field goal by Todd Peterson with 4:11 remaining in the third quarter.
Blake then engineered a 14-play, 90-yard drive which consumed eight minutes and resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by the quarterback with 11:11 left in the game, pulling the Ravens within 31-18. The key play in the drive was a 37-yard pass to Jamal Lewis on third and eight to the Pittsburgh 23.
However, Lewis fumbled at the Pittsburgh 31 with 4:39 left and Washington recovered fo the Steelers.
"At some point, he won't fumble, he'll take better care of the ball," Billick said of Lewis. "He doesn't want to fumble. It hasn't been a problem before. Hopefully, it won't be a problem in the future."