When the Baltimore Ravens play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, you can throw their records out of the window. It doesn’t matter one iota that Pittsburgh won its first game of the year last week—this game is going to be a slugfest, and it’s going to be close.
Baltimore faces a stretch of three divisional games—a period which could make or break its playoff hopes. For the Ravens to leave Heinz Field with a critical division win, here are the important things they need to pay attention to on both sides of the ball.
Keep Running the Ball
Both teams are having difficulties running the football, but the Ravens defense has done a good job of containing the run for the most part. The Steelers, on the other hand, have given up 114.8 rushing yards per game (the 11th-worst average in the league).
Much like the first half of Baltimore’s game against the Green Bay Packers, points will be hard to come by in this game as the defenses will hold center stage. As a result, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell should be able to show more patience with the running game since the game won’t get out of hand.
Furthermore, something that the Ravens should experiment with is running out of three-wideout formations.
The extra receiver takes a man out of the box, which will give the O-line a better chance at winning its individual battles and not having to worry about its assignments as much.
Spread the Ball Around and Be Creative with the Passing Game
One reason why the running game will be highly scrutinized in Week 7 is because Joe Flacco faces a tough matchup in the Steelers defense.
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The passing attack showed a lot of promise against the Packers, but Green Bay has one of the worst passing defenses in the league.
The return of Jacoby Jones is a big boost for the offense, but Tandon Doss and Marlon Brown need to be involved in the passing attack moving forward. Both of them have been impressive so far and have shown the ability to make game-changing plays.
In addition, the Ravens need to get the ball to Ray Rice in space. That has not happened in the running game so far, so they must accomplish that feat with the pass.
Baltimore should get him involved with screens and designed plays to get him matched up against linebackers and down the field, like the Cincinnati Bengals did with Giovani Bernard in Week 2.
On this play, the Bengals run four verticals (blue) which occupies all of the defenders in coverage, who drop back (black). Bernard runs a short curl (solid yellow arrow) and catches the ball with plenty of space ahead of him.
He has enough room to take it all the way to the house (dashed yellow arrow) and scores a 27-yard touchdown.
Rice has similar abilities to make explosive plays off screens and checkdowns, but he needs more opportunities to do so.
Get Torrey Smith Involved with Short Routes
The Green Bay Packers paid close attention to Torrey Smith, limiting him to only one reception for 12 yards in Week 6. Luckily for Baltimore, the other receivers stepped up and turned in good performances.
That will be tough to replicate against the Steelers, and the Ravens can’t afford for Smith to have a subpar performance again.
Last year, Pittsburgh did an excellent job of taking Smith out of the game, and Ike Taylor was phenomenal against him in the one game that he played against Baltimore.
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Taylor was physical at the line of scrimmage, didn’t let Smith get loose for any of his patented big plays and shut him down.
This year, Smith is showing a more complete game. He’s been running more short crossing routes where he can catch the ball in space and use his speed to pick up yards after the catch (he’s fourth in yards after catch).
Plays like that will be crucial in this game because the Steelers have shown they can significantly limit his role as a deep threat.
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Moreover, the Steelers have had problems wrapping up and finishing tackles, as they have racked up 45 missed tackles in just five games. If Smith can catch the ball in space, he has the speed and elusiveness to pick up big chunks of yardage and make defenders miss.
Don’t Let Antonio Brown Pick Up Yards After the Catch
The outstanding play of Antonio Brown has been overshadowed by the struggles of his team. He’s averaging 99.6 yards per game (fourth-highest in the NFL), recorded over five receptions in every game and has picked up the most first downs of any receiver in the league.
Pro Football Focus has him graded as the best wide receiver in football right now (subscription required), and he has the seventh-lowest drop rate of any receiver with only one drop on the year.
Part of the problem that defenses have had containing him is that he is so good at picking up yards after the catch: Almost two-thirds of his catches have come on passes within nine yards from the line of scrimmage.
He is particularly deadly in the screen game, and the Steelers like to get him the ball quickly like they did against the New York Jets.
Emmanuel Sanders (green) blocks the closest cornerback, and four other Steelers (blue) head over to the bottom of the picture to block for Brown. With blocking and space, Brown weaves through defenders to pick up 16 yards on a 3rd-and-15.
Brown is the focal point of their offense, so if the Ravens can tackle well and limit his yards after the catch, they’ll make life very difficult for the Steelers offense.
No Deep-Ball Coverage Breakdowns
According to Pro Football Focus, 16.1 percent of Ben Roethlisberger’s dropbacks result in a deep pass attempt (20 or more yards). That percentage is second to only Jake Locker of the Tennessee Titans (subscription required).
Roethlisberger is well known for his huge arm (much like Flacco), and that is a concern for Baltimore, considering the numerous coverage breakdowns it's had against deep balls.
The issue cropped up again versus the Green Bay Packers, as their only touchdown of the game was a 64-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson (yellow) when Lardarius Webb was beaten (red) and had no safety help (blue) over the top.
Pittsburgh no longer has a premier deep threat like Mike Wallace, but Sanders and Markus Wheaton are both speedy receivers who can make plays down the field. The Ravens defense needs to make sure it doesn’t give up huge plays to a Steelers offense that is struggling to move the football.
Put Pressure on Roethlisberger and Bring Him Down When You Have the Chance
There will be opportunities for Baltimore’s defensive front to get pressure on Roethlisberger with a weak offensive line protecting him. Pittsburgh traded for left tackle Levi Brown, but he was placed on injured reserve before playing a snap for his new team.
Steelers trade for Levi Brown. He suffers a season ending injury in warmups. No comment.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) October 16, 2013
The Ravens have to capitalize on the chances they get to sack Roethlisberger because he is excellent at getting out of the pocket, avoiding sacks and making plays with his feet, like he does here against the Minnesota Vikings.
With the pocket collapsing and multiple defenders coming in for the sack (red), Roethlisberger jumps out of the pocket (yellow) and rolls to his right to find a better angle to hit Heath Miller crossing over the middle (blue).
Instead of a sack on third down, Roethlisberger completes a 28-yard pass and keeps the drive alive.
In Week 6, the Ravens secondary did an excellent job of plastering—staying locked on receivers when the play broke down and Aaron Rodgers used his feet to get out of the pocket and extend the play.
They will need to build on that performance to keep Roethlisberger in check and make sure to wrap him up when they have opportunities for the sack.
Who wins on Sunday?
If the Baltimore Ravens can do all of these things, they will be able to leave Pittsburgh with a victory and put the first nail in the Steelers' comeback coffin.