There are few things less acceptable for the Steelers than being swept by the Ravens; here's how they can avoid that happening for the second straight season.
In the span of just two weeks, the Pittsburgh Steelers have gone from having one of the best offenses in the NFL to the worst, and the result has been two straight losses, both within their AFC North Division.
Considering their performance during those two games—551 total yards of offense, 11 turnovers, two offensive touchdowns—it seems like a long-shot that they can defeat the rival Baltimore Ravens this Sunday and reverse their recent losing trend.
It's not impossible, however. Though the Charlie Batch-led offense isn't what it used to be under quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers still have a great defense and a generally strong run game (last week's turnovers notwithstanding), and enough talent around the roster to defeat the Ravens on Sunday.
Here are two things the Steelers must do to avoid being swept by the Ravens for the second straight season.
Run the Ball
The Baltimore Ravens defense hasn't been as porous when it comes to the run as it was earlier in the season—the Ravens now rank 26th in rushing yards allowed, as compared to 31st, where they were just a few weeks ago. Though they're still allowing an average of 128.5 rushing yards per game, that number dips to 109.6 at home and 91 over their past three games.
However, with Charlie Batch under center, it's fair to say that passing won't come easily this week. Baltimore's pass rush has been steadily improving and considering the shuffled Steelers offensive line that will be protecting Batch this week—Kelvin Beachum will be starting at right tackle, Maurkice Pouncey will replace Willie Colon at left guard and Doug Legursky will be the center—Batch may fare no better than his three-interception performance last week against the Cleveland Browns.
The solution to this is running. Yes, each Steelers running back fumbled the ball away once in the loss to the Browns, but the response to that shouldn't be a fear of the handoff. Jonathan Dwyer was named the starter earlier this week, but it's likely the Steelers will also keep Isaac Redman, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey in the mix.
Because of injuries, the Ravens could potentially be without linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who has been the replacement for Ray Lewis while Lewis recovers from a torn triceps. Ellerbe has done much to improve Baltimore's run defense, and without him, the Steelers could find the opening they need to pick up yards without having to rely too heavily on Batch.
Though passing will of course be necessary—and the return of Antonio Brown from his ankle sprain will help that area of their game—Batch simply isn't reliable in the same way Roethlisberger is. Passing the ball has gone from a strength to a liability with him under center, so the Steelers need to commit to the run this week. Fumbles are simply not an option.
All season long, we've seen the Steelers defend passes. Defenders have gotten their hands on the football multiple times per game, but they just aren't getting the interceptions. In fact, with six picks on the year, only two teams have pulled down fewer interceptions than the Steelers this season. That trend needs to turn around this week against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Flacco is a far better quarterback on his home turf than he is on the road—averaging 319.6 yards per game at M&T Bank Stadium, compared to 185.7 elsewhere, and he has 10 passing touchdowns at home to just four on the road—and though this game is taking place in Baltimore, that doesn't mean the Steelers have to resign themselves to Flacco having a good week.
In fact, Flacco's sense of security at home could ultimately be his undoing. He'll likely be throwing with less trepidation and will have more willingness to take risks, and the Steelers need to be there to turn those risks into mistakes.
They need to lure Flacco into a false sense of security, by giving him time in the pocket and the appearance of exploitable one-on-one matchups downfield. Then, safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu can jump in on the play while the ball is in the air, disrupt the receiver and make—or assist the corner in making—the interception. Polamalu is particularly helpful in scenarios like this, and to the Steelers' credit, he'll finally be back on the field after missing the majority of the season with a calf injury.
Another way to provoke Flacco into interceptions is to bring pressure. As with the turnovers, the Steelers haven't been as strong at the pass rush as in seasons past, with just 22 on the year. With Polamalu back, however, more of Dick LeBeau's blitzing schemes are likely to pay off, though it does hurt that their only effective pass rusher on the season, linebacker LaMarr Woodley, will be out with a ankle injury.
Flacco has seen pressure on 31.8 of his dropbacks, and he's thrown under pressure 106 times. The result has been 26 sacks, eight hits while throwing, five touchdowns and an interception. He's completing 45.3 percent of his pressured passes and he's sacked on 19.4 percent of the time when facing pressure.
Though attempting to sack Flacco has resulted in more sacks than him throwing hurried, imperfect passes, knocking him off his rhythm is a great way to get him to start making errors that the Steelers can exploit.
It won't be enough, however, if cornerbacks Ike Taylor or Keenan Lewis get their hands on those passes and keep them away from their targets—they need to pull down the interception and kill Baltimore drives. There may be few points to be had out of Pittsburgh's offense, so the defense must keep Baltimore from scoring every chance they get.