Sunday night, the Ravens face the Steelers in what is easily their biggest game of the season thus far.
It's a big week for the Baltimore Ravens as they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time this season. With the game in Pittsburgh and the Ravens not a strong road team, they'll need to make some significant adjustments to how they approach their biggest rivals if they want to leave town with a win.
Making things somewhat easier for Baltimore is the fact that Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will not be playing, having suffered a sternoclavicular (SC) joint sprain and rib dislocation in his team's Week 10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. However, Roethlisberger isn't the only Steelers player the Ravens need to worry about—him being off the field does not guarantee a Baltimore victory.
A win further secures Baltimore's lead in the AFC North and gives it some serious momentum heading into the two teams' second meeting, just two weeks later. Here's a game plan for how the Ravens should approach the Steelers this week.
Passing hasn't worked all too well for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco when on the road, but luckily for him and for his team, they also have one of the league's best running backs in Ray Rice, and he'll be the key to a Baltimore victory this Sunday night.
The Steelers have one of the better run-stopping defenses in the league, allowing an average of 94.6 rushing yards per game, ranking them sixth overall. However, they aren't impervious to the skills of talented running backs, as evidenced last Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, when they gave up 100 rushing yards to Jamaal Charles.
Most interestingly, the majority of Charles' yards came when he was running to the right side of his offensive line and into the left end of the Steelers defense populated by linebacker LaMarr Woodley and defensive end Ziggy Hood.
With Charles and Rice similar running backs in terms of explosiveness, Charles' success running through the right side of his line provides a great blueprint for how the Ravens can run well with Rice on Sunday.
It's not as though the Ravens need to abandon the idea of passing the ball entirely—of their 3.2 touchdowns per game they are presently averaging, 1.4 are via the pass—but they first need to get into scoring position. Rice can provide them more yardage on the road than Flacco, generally speaking—he's completing just 53 percent of his passes in away games this year—and get them into scoring position, allowing either him, fellow back Bernard Pierce or Flacco's arm to yield touchdowns.
Though the Steelers lead the league in total defense—that is, yards allowed—there are weaknesses the Ravens can take advantage of. They rank 13th in opponent red-zone scoring attempts and are giving up a touchdown on 55.56 percent of those attempts, ranking them 19th. At the same time, the Ravens are scoring touchdowns 65.52 percent of the time they reach the red zone.
Preventing touchdowns is an area of weakness for Pittsburgh's defense—its strength lies in not allowing many opportunities for opponents to get to the red zone. But if the Ravens can get past it and into scoring position, the odds are in the favor that they'll score touchdowns. Rice needs to be a major component of this effort; simple as that.
Stopping the Run
The biggest area of weakness for the Ravens defense this season has been stopping the run. Despite giving up a mere 72 rushing yards to the Oakland Raiders last week, its issues haven't been fixed. The Raiders have one of the worst rushing offenses in the league, which gave the Ravens a bit of ready-made success before even actually taking the field. The Steelers are a far more difficult test.
Stopping the run is of even greater importance this week, with Byron Leftwich under center instead of Ben Roethlisberger. The Ravens need Leftwich to throw and keep throwing—he hasn't started a game since 2009 and has an elongated delivery that makes it easier to both determine where he's going with the ball and more vulnerable to defensive pressure, two weaknesses Baltimore's defense can use to its advantage. The less success the Steelers have when running the ball, the more they'll have to rely on Leftwich and lower the possibility they will win.
In their last four games, the Steelers have put up 167, 140, 158 and 95 rushing yards, respectively, while in the four games prior to the rout of the Raiders last week, the Ravens allowed 214, 227, 181 and 116 rushing yards. Allowing the Steelers backs to gain yardage like that won't give Baltimore enough of an opportunity to get to Leftwich—Pittsburgh won't have to rely on him.
Though the Raiders shot their own run game in the foot, the Ravens did make adjustments to better control their backs, including rotating their linebackers (and moving rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw to defensive tackle in certain situations). This creative approach needs to continue into this Sunday night's game—anything that can give them a situational advantage against the run, they need to do, whether it involves their formations or the personnel who is on the field.