Well, well, well, Steelers fans. Here it is. The moment has arrived, in all its glory.
Level with me for a second: do you feel it? Because I do.
I’ve personally felt it every day this week, and have for 13 years running.
The uneasy excitement. The knots in my stomach. Even the trivial nature of our day-to-day existence. There’s a palpable electricity and tension suspended in the air. Everything takes a backseat to this week of all weeks, a veil of anticipation frequently sending the mind adrift.
My own mind a vagabond, I often think about the Roman Colosseum. Of gladiators and warriors adorning proud crests on shields. Of exhilarating victories and agonizing defeats. Hordes of every class and ilk forgetting, even if only for a moment, their hardships and tribulations.
In this week of all weeks, I always find myself cherishing the profound rotation of the prolate spheroid and the impact it has in our country. Talk about humble beginnings! What started as a pig’s organ has transformed itself into our single-greatest source of entertainment. What could be more American than that?
“From Bladders to Billions: the Great American Triumph.”
Sorry… I’m weird. There’s only one thing that can bring the decorum of a typically professional football writer to its knees:
It’s Steelers week!
RAVENS week. Wow, that feels weird to say.
Forget the Titans. You can find a review of that game anywhere. I’m focusing 100% on the best rivalry in the NFL, so please follow along with me as I, with as much objectivity as ever (no, really), break down MY team against yours:
Will the Steelers be Willing to Test Baltimore Deep?
This HAS to be on more than just my radar.
I talked last week about the possibility of Pittsburgh (6-0) taking some deep shots against the Titans to establish an early lead and force the Titans out of their element with the ground game.
Well, it didn’t happen, and hasn’t all year.
According to the NFL’s research team, Ben Roethlisberger has the shortest time to throw in the league this year (2.29s). In other words, he’s getting rid of the ball FAST. What it also means is that Big Ben simply isn’t the same play-extending gun slinger he’s been in the past. This isn’t a knock on him at all; in fact, it’s working quite well. But, this week could test the Steelers’ offensive philosophy.
Baltimore’s (5-1) secondary is fierce, led by first team All-Pro cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, who many consider to be the best tandem in the league. They can also hurt you in different ways. Humphrey leads the NFL in forced fumbles (4), which may not come as a surprise to Steelers fans after this happened last year. Peters owns the most interceptions since he entered the league in 2015 (29). Both corners possess the ability to make game-changing plays at any time.
So how does this impact Pittsburgh?
Let me be more clear: they have a propensity to throw short. In fact, according to Next Gen stats, 71.5% of Roethlisberger’s passes have traveled fewer than 10 air yards, with 54.7% of his passing yards coming on yards after the catch (YAC). Baltimore, on the other hand, is great at limiting YAC on short passes, coming in at only 5.3 yards per catch. They also are the only team allowing average yards after the catch BELOW expectation on said short passes.
So Why No Deep Passes Thus Far?
It’s tough to say. It could be Pittsburgh is trying to preserve either Big Ben’s arm or Roethlisberger himself.
Short passes do mean less hits on the quarterback, after all. However, you saw the negative side of the equation in the second half against Tennessee last week. Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons got his hands up and tipped one of Roethlisberger’s passes, causing one of three interceptions on the day. When quarterbacks throw too many short passes, linemen often stop their rush early to get their hands up to block passing windows. Baltimore just so happens to have the NFL’s leader on the defensive line at batting passes in 6’8″ Calais Campbell (5). You can be sure that the entire Ravens defensive front is being coached to get their hands up this week.
In order to help offset this issue, Pittsburgh will need to be willing to test Baltimore’s secondary deep down the field, or at least mix up their passing game to keep the defense guessing. The longer these “dink-and-dunk” Steelers drives go, the more likely they are to turn the ball over. If you exclude the teams without a week off, the Ravens are second in the NFL in takeaways and first among all 32 teams in forced fumbles. A whopping 5 (!) of their players have at least two of them! In other words, the Ravens are really good at taking the ball away from their opponents.
The Steelers need to protect the ball, no doubt, and that (somewhat surprisingly) starts with a downfield attack that can help limit the Ravens’ opportunistic defense. Look for an uptick in Chase Claypool’s usage from last week.
What Might the Ravens Scheme Up Coming Out of Their BYE Week?
The Ravens are a good football team, but they are especially good coming out of their BYE week. Since John Harbaugh took over in 2008, Baltimore holds a 10-2 record coming off a week of rest during the regular season. You may remember that it was after their BYE last year that Baltimore began looking like the juggernaut of the AFC before getting unceremoniously ousted in the playoffs. Rest assured, Baltimore has taken time to self-correct and adjust, as well as utilize an extra week of preparation for their arch nemesis.
So how might they look different?
It starts with having a plan for the Steelers’ ferocious front-seven, and it better be a good one. Baltimore’s offensive line has looked leaky in 2020 with stud right guard Marshal Yanda’s retirement. There is the possibility a new face could appear at Yanda’s old spot this week with rookie starter Tyre Phillips exhibiting a lot of growing pains.
Regardless of who starts, they could be in for a long day against the No. 1 defense in yards allowed (286.3) and sacks (26).
What I Want to See the Ravens Do Differently:
- Implement the screen game. Baltimore needs to give Lamar Jackson some easy passes to build his confidence and help neutralize the aggressive pass rush that Pittsburgh presents. This also ties into my next point.
- Give J.K. Dobbins the ball! The second-round rookie back has shown glimmers that make me confident he’s the most dynamic running back Baltimore has to offer. However, they have yet to really give him a chance to show it. Now, the opportunity may be presenting itself with Mark Ingram doubtful to play. It’ll be a tough week for J.K. Dobbins to break out, as the Steelers boast the second-toughest run defense in the league. However, all the talent is there. He’s been limited to just 25 carries, but his 6.2 yards per-carry average would lead all NFL running backs if his touches qualified.
- Spread out! Baltimore has spent a lot of time trying to run with heavier formations involving fullback Pat Ricard and tight end Nick Boyle. They shouldn’t abandon this entirely, but they do need to present defenses with more spacious looks like shotgun, involving Dobbins and their speedier playmakers like receivers Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay. I spoke this offseason about Baltimore utilizing both their heavy attack and tremendous amount of team speed. The latter simply hasn’t materialized. This can’t continue when Lamar Jackson is your quarterback. With more shotgun formations, they’ll have a chance to make the most of both their running and passing games, opening up space for their dynamic bevy of young playmakers.
What About the Defense?
- Yes, the defense should be looking to adjust, as well. How, you ask? Well, the only team in the NFL that blitzes more than the Steelers is the Ravens. But, Baltimore’s blitz-rate could come down with the addition of Pro-Bowl pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Baltimore got burned against the Chiefs for sending too many rushers. Now that the Ravens have someone to pair with linebacker Matthew Judon, you could see a slight tweak in their defensive philosophy. Ngakoue makes the Ravens defense more versatile and gives them a greater chance to win with a four-man rush. Consequently, Big Ben will have to be careful when he drops back to pass Sunday, because there may be more men in coverage in Baltimore’s secondary than usual.
Matchups to Watch:
Pittsburgh’s Receivers vs. Baltimore’s Secondary:
Maybe this is too obvious, but Sunday should be a particularly fascinating watch here. Pittsburgh has so many ways they can attack defenses with such an outstanding group of playmakers. Baltimore will present their biggest challenge to date, but the Steelers should be well prepared. I personally have no idea how Baltimore plans to slow these guys down. Ideally, I think they would play matchups (ex. Marlon Humphrey following Diontae Johnson, regardless of where he lines up). However, with Pittsburgh presenting so many looks with so many great players on offense, it may be hard for Baltimore to dictate matchups this week. Pay close attention to who Pittsburgh tries to exploit on a Baltimore defense with few clear weaknesses.
TE Eric Ebron vs. ILBs Patrick Queen & L.J. Fort:
Speaking of weaknesses, this is the rare area where Baltimore has shown significant vulnerability on defense. The Ravens have been very happy with rookie middle linebacker Patrick Queen’s progress, but coverage assignments are difficult for most young linebackers. Patrick Mahomes was able to pick apart the middle of Baltimore’s defense in Week 3. Eric Ebron will drop the occasional pass and isn’t a great blocker, but he is undoubtedly a weapon for the Steelers offense. Will Queen and former Steeler L.J. Fort be able to contain him?
QB Lamar Jackson vs. the Steelers defense:
While Pittsburgh has yet to face a quarterback this season as gifted as peak Lamar Jackson, the reality is Jackson hasn’t been quite the threat he was down the stretch in 2019. A knee injury may have limited him for at least a couple of weeks, but the offense has been out of sync all season. Jackson hasn’t been on the same page with his receivers, and Baltimore hasn’t utilized his legs or their ground game in general at the rate they did last year. If the Ravens want to beat the Steelers, they’re going to need Jackson to make a handful of MVP-caliber plays in obvious passing situations. If he presses or can’t find a rhythm early, the Ravens star could be in for a similar outing as the one he had against the Steelers last year.
OLB T.J. Watt vs. RT Orlando Brown, Jr. & Right Guard:
Part of Lamar Jackson’s problem this season is he’s gone from the best quarterback against the blitz last year to one of the worst in 2020. This hasn’t been entirely on him, as the offensive line has regressed and pass-catchers not named Marquise Brown or Mark Andrews are struggling to get open. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt is an absolute wrecking ball in both the run and pass game and is currently tied for fifth in the league in sacks (5.5). The combination of Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown, Jr. and whoever Baltimore trots out at right guard will have to bring their A+ game for at least 60 minutes. Otherwise, Jackson’s success is going to be that much harder to come by.
OLB Yannick Ngakoue vs. ________?
It’ll be interesting to see how much Baltimore utilizes their newest defensive addition. Yannick Ngakoue’s greatest strength is as a speed rusher in a wide outside alignment against the left tackle. But, with Baltimore’s complex scheme, do we see him asked to do more? Will he be asked to cover? Does he move inside at all? My guess is his assignment will almost exclusively consist of beating tackle Alejandro Villanueva and getting to Big Ben.
Quick Thoughts & Facts:
- Steelers fullback Derek Watt and cornerback Mike Hilton are listed as questionable, but the expectation is that they should be back for this game.
- Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, however, is out this week (back). For those that may not know him, Gilbert III filled-in for Devin Bush in dime packages, so his absence could be be big. Who takes his place in coverage? Vince Williams? Marcus Allen? Robert Spillane seems to be relegated to early-down duty.
- As aforementioned, the only player unlikely to play for Baltimore is running back Mark Ingram. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards should be 1A and 1B in his absence.
- Eight players have at least two sacks for the Ravens. Pittsburgh will need to be prepared for pressure from anywhere and anyone.
- I think Baltimore needs to employ a healthy dose of play-action against the Steelers, and vice-versa. Both passing games will rely on it for big play attempts against stout defenses.
- Speaking of big plays, this feels like the week Baltimore attempts to get a deep pass to speedy rookie Devin Duvernay with so much attention focused on Marquise Brown.
- The Ravens are 24-0 when leading or tied at halftime during the Lamar Jackson era. But, they’re 0-6 when trailing. Pittsburgh should feel great about their chances if they can assert themselves early.
- Ben Roethlisberger is 0-7 in Baltimore when the Ravens score 20+ points. Baltimore has scored 20+ points in all 28 of Lamar Jackson’s regular season starts, and are within one game of the all-time record for games in a row with at least 20 points scored (29).
- Another area Pittsburgh may look to exploit Baltimore is in their run defense, which is ceding 4.6 yards per-carry, tied for 20th in the league. It is worth noting, however, that they’ve faced the second-least rushing attempts in the NFL. Pittsburgh is tops in that category, as well.
While these are the games I always look forward to most on Baltimore’s schedule, they also seem to always give me the most anxiety. Perhaps that’s because the Steelers and Ravens claim 23 wins apiece in this rivalry since 2000, with 21 of those contests decided by three points or less. Talk about nail-biters.
I truly could see this game going a litany of ways, so no outcome would really surprise me.
Score Prediction: Ravens 23, Steelers 20
At the very least, I’m probably going to regret predicting a score this low, even with these two phenomenal defenses. I’m giving the Ravens the edge, not because they’re my team, but because:
- Vegas started them as 5.5-point favorites. The number has settled somewhere around 4.0. The odds-makers win more than they lose.
- Baltimore is coming off rest and an extra week of game preparation. They will make a play or two as a result that could make the difference.
- The Steelers have played well overall, but I have yet to see a complete win (Cleveland’s dumpster fire doesn’t count). They’ve had nail-biters against strong and weak competition. Their signature win could very well come this week.
- Baltimore needs this game a lot more. If they lose, they drop to 5-2 and Pittsburgh improves to 7-0, giving the Steelers a 2.5-game lead in the division (they would win a tiebreaker, hence the half). Baltimore would be ceding ground with tough games against the Colts, Patriots, Titans, and Steelers ahead, three of which are on the road.
- While, on one hand, I don’t know how Baltimore will be able to score enough points to win, I could say the same about Pittsburgh. The Ravens offense has had significant issues, but I can’t imagine, barring disaster, that the short passing game of the Steelers will be enough, and Big Ben’s deep shots have been off to this point. Lamar Jackson has taken Roethlisberger’s place as the improviser in this rivalry, and that makes itself known in this game.
That’s it for me, Steelers fans! This is a battle for AFC North supremacy. This is our Week 8 Super Bowl, and I couldn’t be happier… or more nauseous.
Until next time!