Steelers vs. Ravens: Complete Thanksgiving Day Primer for Pittsburgh, Baltimore

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVNovember 28, 2013

The AFC North's best rivalry gets a rare Thanksgiving Night stage this year.
The AFC North's best rivalry gets a rare Thanksgiving Night stage this year.Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens host the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving night, the first Turkey Day matchup for two AFC North foes since the night game tradition began in 2006. 

The two 5-6 squads are trying to gain ground in their division as well as stay relevant in the AFC's tight race for the conference's sixth wild-card playoff berth. To say a lot is on the line for both the Ravens and Steelers in this game is an understatement.

Here's everything you need to know about the Ravens and Steelers heading into Thursday's showdown.

Thanksgiving History

The Ravens most recently played on Thanksgiving, taking on the San Francisco 49ers in 2011.
The Ravens most recently played on Thanksgiving, taking on the San Francisco 49ers in 2011.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Unlike the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, the Ravens and Steelers aren't typically on the field on Thanksgiving. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Steelers have played on Thanksgiving three times—in 1983 against the Lions, in 1991 against the Cowboys and against the Lions again in 1998.

With the Ravens being a relatively young franchise, they've played on Thanksgiving only once, hosting the San Francisco 49ers in 2011—the original Harbaugh Bowl.

The Steelers are 0-3 on Thanksgiving, while the Ravens are 1-0. 

Injury Report for Pittsburgh

Injury Report for Pittsburgh
NT Steve McLendonAnkleOut
LB LaMarr WoodleyCalfDoubtful
OT Marcus GilbertAnkleProbable
DE Brett KeiselFootProbable
TE Heath MillerNon-InjuryProbable
S Troy PolamaluNon-InjuryProbable
LB Stevenson SylvesterHamstringProbable
S Shamarko ThomasAnkleProbable
via Pittsburgh Steelers

Two key members of Pittsburgh's defense will be sidelined on Thursday. Nose tackle Steve McLendon is out with an ankle sprain, while linebacker LaMarr Woodley is doubtful with a calf injury. If he's out, this will be the third straight game he's missed.

Injury Report for Baltimore

Injury Report for Baltimore
S Brynden TrawickAnkleOut
DE Chris CantyShoulderProbable
via Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens got out of Week 12 with few serious injuries. Only safety (and primarily special teamer) Brynden Trawick will miss Thursday's game with an ankle injury. Defensive end Chris Canty is probable with a shoulder injury. This may be the healthiest that the Ravens have been all year. 

Will Ben Roethlisberger's Protection Hold?

Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked only once in the last two weeks.
Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked only once in the last two weeks.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 36 times this year, while the Ravens defense as a whole has notched 37. With the Steelers struggling to run the ball well, the passing game is how they will try to gain most of their yardage on Thursday, which means Roethlisberger cannot repeatedly be a sitting duck for Baltimore's pass rush.

The good news for the Steelers is that Roethlisberger has been sacked just once over his last two games. Despite facing the Detroit Lions' front seven and then the Cleveland Browns' formidable pass rush, he's stayed relatively clean.

The Steelers need this trend to continue.

Pittsburgh has found both stability on the offensive line as well as a formula that works. As bad as the line has been at run blocking, it has finally come together in pass protection. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum has been an upgrade over his predecessor Mike Adams, but Adams has also been helpful as an extra lineman-slash-tight end, adding another body between would-be pass-rushers and Roethlisberger.

Kelvin Beachum has been surprisingly competent at left tackle.
Kelvin Beachum has been surprisingly competent at left tackle.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Beachum will be matched up against Terrell Suggs and Pernell McPhee. Suggs, Baltimore's right outside linebacker, and McPhee, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end and situational pass-rusher, have combined for 11 sacks this year, along with 45 pressures. Beachum, in his second year in the league, will have a lot to handle.

To his credit, it's nothing he hasn't seen before. In Week 7, the Steelers hosted the Ravens with Beachum at left tackle. He gave up just one sack and one hurry, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). It was not Beachum's best performance this season but also certainly not his worst.

On the right, Marcus Gilbert will be tasked with keeping linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw at bay. Dumervil is the Ravens' sack leader with 9.5, while Upshaw has one. Dumervil had one sack when the Steelers and Ravens met earlier this year, but it wasn't Gilbert's fault. In fact, the only pressure that he allowed in that meeting was a lone quarterback hit.

As long as the offensive line performs as well as it did in the Steelers' first meeting with the Ravens, Roethlisberger shouldn't have a rough time on Thursday.

Can Pittsburgh's Defense Keep Up Its String of Takeaways?

William Gay had a pick-six last week, and the Steelers defense has seven takeaways in the last two games.
William Gay had a pick-six last week, and the Steelers defense has seven takeaways in the last two games.Jason Miller/Getty Images

In the last two weeks, the Steelers defense has somehow become a takeaway machine. The defense has forced seven of them—five lost fumbles all recovered by Pittsburgh and two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. 

In the same span, the Ravens offense has turned the ball over three times, with two lost fumbles and one interception. A game can swing on turnovers, and the Steelers are hoping that the string of picks and fumble recoveries they've had recently continues on Thursday.

Interceptions are a skill, but fumbles are mostly luck. A team can practice punching out footballs, but there's no telling in a game who will come up with the recovery. That's not to say the Steelers defense should dial down its intensity, but there's no way to predict who will recover any fumble they force this week.

Joe Flacco has thrown a career-high 14 interceptions this season.
Joe Flacco has thrown a career-high 14 interceptions this season.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Getting Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to throw an interception or two might be the best way for the Steelers to continue their streak of turnovers. He has thrown 14 interceptions already this season—his greatest single-season total with five games yet to play. With an offensive line not offering him reliable protection and a dearth of receiving targets, he's more mistake prone than he's ever been.

Pittsburgh's defense is designed to highlight a quarterback's weaknesses and make him pay for his mistakes. A combination of pressure and good coverage could force Flacco to throw before he's ready, throw it poorly or force throws into well-covered receivers. If that happens, the odds for an interception are high.

Although winning the turnover battle doesn't always guarantee a checkmark in the win column, it certainly helps. It's no coincidence the Steelers have had two big back-to-back wins while forcing multiple turnovers per game. Doing it again on Thursday can help them lock in another victory.

Will the Ravens Try to Run the Wildcat Again?

Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor was on the field for 12 Wildcat plays last week.
Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor was on the field for 12 Wildcat plays last week.Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

In Baltimore's 19-3 rout of the New York Jets last week, the Ravens tried a new approach on offense: running the Wildcat. For 12 plays, backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor took the fieldseven times as a receiver and five times at quarterback. The experiment was likely an attempt to gain rushing yards against the Jets' league-leading run defense, especially considering the Ravens are averaging just 81.7 rushing yards per game.

The results were less than stellar, with Taylor going 0-of-1 in his pass attempts and gaining only seven yards from his four rushes. And Flacco wasn't pleased by the decision to split him out wide. According to Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, Flacco thinks the Wildcat makes teams who run it "look like a high school offense."

Flacco's frustration is understandable—he's the quarterback, and he wants to be under center, which he has said so himself. And it's not as though the Ravens' dabbling in the Wildcat last week produced positive results. However, it's also hard to fault the coaching staff for trying to find a way to kick-start the stalled running game.

Flacco may be unhappy, but despite his Super Bowl MVP award and huge new contract, he still must execute the plays that are called. He may not move from the line of scrimmage or feign a block if asked to play the role of receiver, but if John Harbaugh or Jim Caldwell call for the Wildcat, he'll have to do it.

Joe Flacco is not a fan of the Wildcat offense.
Joe Flacco is not a fan of the Wildcat offense.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Ravens, however, may be able to get significant rushing yardage without the aid of the Wildcat on Thursday night. Pittsburgh's defense ranks 23rd in rushing yards allowed per game at 118.8. Lanes should open up for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in ways they didn't against the top-ranked Jets. 

That does present an opportunity to use the Wildcat, however. If the Steelers are giving up more than 100 rushing yards per game to traditional rushing attacks, the element of surprise that the Wildcat can provide could be useful to the Ravens. A 93-yard quarterback run by the Oakland Raiders' Terrelle Pryor opened up Pittsburgh's 21-18 loss in Week 8, and Raiders running back Darren McFadden also scored in that game on a four-yard Wildcat run.

It's doubtful the Ravens run 12 Wildcat plays like they did last week. However, don't be surprised if they break it out once or twice in order to catch a struggling Steelers run defense off guard. Ultimately, though, just handing off to Pierce and Rice should prove more effective this week than it has for most of the season.

A Must-Win for the Ravens?

With a tough schedule ahead and a desire to defend their Super Bowl championship, the Ravens are in a must-win situation on Thursday.
With a tough schedule ahead and a desire to defend their Super Bowl championship, the Ravens are in a must-win situation on Thursday.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Both the Steelers and Ravens are 5-6 and among the jumble of AFC teams vying for the conference's sixth playoff berth. However, a loss would do more harm to the Ravens' odds of making it to the postseason than the Steelers.

Including this game, the Ravens have only two contests in the AFC North remaining; the other comes in Week 17 against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers have three—the Ravens on Thursday, the Bengals in Week 15 and the Browns in Week 17. 

Further, the Steelers face the Miami Dolphins in Week 14. The Dolphins are another of the AFC's 5-6 teams in the hunt for the sixth seed. The Steelers could lose in Baltimore on Thursday and still be in good playoff footing if they win their following two games. The Ravens, however, don't have another game against one of the marginal AFC playoff teams.

Baltimore's remaining schedule is tough. After the Steelers on Thursday, they take on the Minnesota Vikings in Week 14. Then they travel to Detroit to take on the NFC North-leading Lions before coming home to host the top team in the AFC East, the New England Patriots. They close out the year against the Bengals. 

Ravens' Upcoming Opponents
13vs. Steelers
14vs. Vikings
15at Lions*
16vs. Patriots*
17at Bengals*
*Denotes teams with winning records through Week 12

If the Steelers complete their sweep of the Ravens on Thursday, Baltimore's battle to reach the playoffs would be so uphill it's practically vertical. This is a situation foreign to the Ravens—they've made the postseason for the past five years and are defending Super Bowl champions.

But they may have little to fight for if they cannot best their biggest rival this week. More hangs in the balance this week for the Ravens than for the Steelers: to say this is a must-win for them is not hyperbole. Though Baltimore cannot be penciled in as the AFC's sixth seed in the playoffs with a win, it can be ruled out with a loss. This is a high-stakes week for the Ravens.

Steelers Matchup to Watch: Ike Taylor Versus Torrey Smith

Ike Taylor has had trouble this year with No. 1 receivers.
Ike Taylor has had trouble this year with No. 1 receivers.Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor is having a rough year. Last week, he almost single-handedly gave up 237 yards and a touchdown to Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon. The week before that, he gave up 159 yards and two touchdowns on five catches to the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson.

All told, Taylor has allowed 48 receptions on 76 targets this yearfor 807 yards, 260 yards after the catch and four touchdowns to no interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). This week, he'll be matched up with Ravens wideout Torrey Smith. Without help, he may give up more than 100 yards yet again.

At 33 years old, Taylor is past his prime. However, it seems as though Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau sees him as a shutdown corner who is capable of playing man coverage with the best receivers in the NFL.

That's not the case, as we've seen so often this year. 

Ike Taylor was responsible for most of Josh Gordon's 237 receiving yards last week.
Ike Taylor was responsible for most of Josh Gordon's 237 receiving yards last week.Jason Miller/Getty Images

Because Flacco has been so inconsistent this year and the Ravens as a whole so disappointing, the fact that Smith is having his best season has gone mostly unnoticed. Though he has only three touchdownsthe fewest thus far in his careerhis 859 receiving yards are a personal best.

He's averaging 17.9 yards per reception, while Taylor is giving up an average of 16.8 yards on the passes completed to his receiver. Without help, he could be doomed against Smith. Flacco has a strong arm, is playing at home and has few other receiving options.

Taylor is either going to need help or is going to be burned for more than 100 yards and at least a touchdown. How the Steelers handle Smith and adjust to Taylor's weakness in coverage could decide this game. 

Ravens Matchup to Watch: Lardarius Webb Versus Antonio Brown 

Lardarius Webb could have a tough time stopping the Steelers' top receiver, Antonio Brown.
Lardarius Webb could have a tough time stopping the Steelers' top receiver, Antonio Brown.Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Steelers are struggling to run the ball just like the Ravens, which means they must pass to move the ball. That makes the matchups this week between each team's No. 1 receiver and No. 1 cornerback the ones to watch.

On Baltimore's side of the ball, that's corner Lardarius Webb, who will be tasked with stopping Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

Brown is Pro Football Focus' fourth-ranked receiver this year, and he's by far the most productive member of Pittsburgh's offense save Ben Roethlisberger. He's caught an impressive 80 of the 115 passes thrown his way thus far, for 1,044 yards, 425 yards after the catch and six touchdowns. He's made would-be tacklers miss 11 times and has only three dropped passes on the year.

Antonio Brown is a threat all over the field.
Antonio Brown is a threat all over the field.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

He is a versatile weapon. He can catch passes in the flat, take simple screens for 10 or 15 yards and get open deep. To stop him will take a combined effort by Baltimore's defense, but Webb will be the one shadowing him most often.

Though not a shutdown corner, Webb is having a good year. He's allowed only 39 receptions on the 69 passes thrown his direction, for 609 yards, 227 yards after the catch and just one touchdown. He has one interception this year and has successfully broken up nine passes. 

There are other members of Pittsburgh's offense who can make life difficult for the Ravens defense on Thursday night, but none need to be stopped more than Brown. He's the premier chain-mover with 49 first downs and a 94.9-yard average per game. If Webb can keep Brown's damage to a minimum, the Ravens have a better chance to win. 

Tale of the Tape

Tale of the Tape
Steelers, 3; Ravens, 6; Even, 1.

The Steelers have the edge at quarterback, because Roethlisberger hasn't turned the ball over once in his past two games while only taking one sack. He also has 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, compared to 14 apiece for Flacco.

The Ravens win out in the running back category. When they're behind a good offensive line, Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice make up one of the better tandems in the league. Neither team is running well; as a whole, the Steelers are averaging 3.3 yards per carry, while the Ravens are averaging 2.9. But Baltimore has six rushing touchdowns this year to Pittsburgh's four.

Pittsburgh wins out in the receiver category. Beyond Torrey Smith, the Ravens don't have much to write home about, while the Steelers boast Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and the surprising Jerricho Cotchery, who has seven touchdowns and 503 yards on his 34 receptions.

Heath Miller gives the Steelers the advantage at tight end.
Heath Miller gives the Steelers the advantage at tight end.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

The Steelers also have the advantage at tight end. The Ravens won't be getting Dennis Pitta back this week, which leaves Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark as Flacco's only options at the position. Clark has the second-most receiving yards for the Ravens this year, but it's a paltry 335. The Steelers have Heath Miller, who may be still trying to return to form from last year's knee injury but is a better all-around tight end than Clark and Dickson.

Offensive line is a wash. Both lines have been improving in pass protection, but the run blocking for both has been terrible this season.

Baltimore has the better defensive line, although the Steelers will be getting defensive end Brett Keisel back after a two-game absence. Pittsburgh is without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon, while the Ravens have Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata doing the job in their defensive front. Ends Chris Canty and Cameron Heyward are near-identical in their performances this year (both good), but the young Arthur Jones has the edge over Keisel.

Linebacker, too, goes in Baltimore's favor. The Steelers yet again will be without LaMarr Woodley, and though Jason Worilds has been playing well on the left side in relief, rookie Jarvis Jones is no comparison for Baltimore's right outside backer Terrell Suggs. 

Defense is Baltimore's strength this year. The Ravens edge out the Steelers in the defensive back category. Though Baltimore has no comparison for Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, the play of its cornerbacks has been considerably better than the Steelers'. Ike Taylor is a liability who drags the entire secondary down.

Justin Tucker has made four field goals of 50 or more yards this year.
Justin Tucker has made four field goals of 50 or more yards this year.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Special teams goes to the Ravens as well. Both Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham and Ravens kicker Justin Tucker have made 24 of their 26 field-goal attempts, but Tucker is 4-of-5 on attempts of 50 or more yards. Suisham has yet to attempt one that long.

Punting is a problem in Pittsburgh—Roethlisberger's 28-yard punt last week might be the team's best of the season. And in the return game, Jacoby Jones edges out Felix Jones and Antonio Brown for the Steelers.

Coaching also edges in Baltimore's favor, though not by much. There have been no discussions of Harbaugh being on the hot seat, but the same cannot be said for Mike Tomlin. Todd Haley is a problematic offensive coordinator, while Jim Caldwell's only major misstep this year seems to be the Wildcat plays from last week. Dick LeBeau is a legend, but Baltimore's defense is playing better than Pittsburgh's. 


The Steelers haven't swept the Ravens since 2008, and it doesn't look like it will happen this year. Baltimore has thrived with home-field advantage, and it will play an important role in this game. 

With both run games producing very little, the pass—and how it's defended—will decide this contest. The Ravens have a slight edge on defense, and Torrey Smith paired up with Ike Taylor could be a disaster for Pittsburgh. This game, like the last, will be close, but the home team gets the victory.

Ravens 19, Steelers 16


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