Happy Thanksgiving football fans! The NFL is giving us a full three-course meal of games on Thursday, filling our bellies with all the football we could ever want.
The third game on the docket for Thursday is a showdown between AFC North rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Since this is the last game of the day, we can think of it as the pumpkin pie of our Thanksgiving football feast.
If you aren't unconscious from the tryptophan in all the turkey, you are going to be in for a treat with this game. Neither the Ravens nor Steelers like each other at all, and with the added implications of the playoffs, it's going to be worth it to stay up for this one.
Let's break down these two teams a little and figure out what the Steelers need to do in order to win and keep their playoff hopes alive.
|Opp. Passing Yards||10th||11th|
|Opp. Rushing Yards||23rd||11th|
The Steelers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, having gone 5-2 in their previous seven games. The Ravens have struggled, going 3-4 during that same stretch. Four of the Ravens' five wins this season have come at home, while the Steelers are only 2-4 on the road.
When the Steelers have the football
Weather on Thursday shouldn't be the factor it has been the past two weeks, which should allow the Steelers to open up the playbook against a very balanced Ravens defense.
A strength of the Ravens defense is their ability to rush the passer. The past two weeks, the Steelers have done much better in protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, so expect more of the same: quickly developing pass plays to the short and intermediate routes that maximize the athleticism of the Steelers receivers and minimize the role of the Steelers offensive line.
The run game should apply similar principles. Rather than stack the line with extra linemen, tight ends and full backs, the run game should work out of the same multiple wide receiver formations the team is throwing out of. This look gives running back Le'Veon Bell lanes he can exploit, rather than deal with all the congestion of these jumbo formations.
Another aspect of the offense the Ravens will certainly have to contend with is the no-huddle. Roethlisberger and the offense are growing increasingly more comfortable with the sort of mock hurry-up offense that should keep the Ravens defense guessing and hopefully slow down the pass rush.
Another wrinkle the Steelers have folded in over the past few weeks has been the fake to the short game and the shot deep. When you have wide receivers like Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, the temptation has to be there to always want to just send them on go routes and toss it up. For that to be effective, the Steelers must manipulate the safeties, and there's no better way to keep the safeties honest and at a moderate depth than to have a well-executed screen game. Look for screens to multiple players setting up the deep throws. It could be a week to see wide receiver Markus Wheaton make a few big plays.
When the Ravens have the football
After winning Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens made some serious changes to their roster, and where they are taking the biggest hit is on offense. Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were supposed to be this two-headed rushing monster that would support newly paid quarterback Joe Flacco after the loss of his favorite target, wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
That isn't exactly how it had worked. Flacco has really struggled throwing the ball, and when your entire offense is built around the play of your quarterback, nothing works without him.
For Pittsburgh, that means making the Ravens one-dimensional. It's a near certainty that the Ravens will come out and try to run the football. Every team does. The Steelers have to be sure that they are disciplined in run support and force Flacco to throw the football.
Even last Sunday, when the Browns seemingly had wide receiver Josh Gordon anytime they wanted him, it wasn't enough to have any significant outcome on the game. If the Steelers choose to give up Smith on some deep passes, in exchange for hits on Flacco and no run game, they will win big again.
Who will get the win on Thanksgiving?
Confidence is a dangerous thing, and the Steelers defensive has been playing with confidence in the past few weeks. This is hazardous for the Ravens. Where the confidence shows is with the riskier moves players like safety Troy Polamalu are making to go after the football.
Confidence your teammates are swarming to the ball means the first man in can try to strip the football. Confidence you have protection over the top means you can go for the interception. Confidence that coverage will be sound means you sell out on the pass rush. A confident Steelers defense is going to be too much for a sputtering Ravens offense to contend with.
What's happening on Twitter
From the official Steelers Twitter account, something to get us all ready for the game.
Steelers/Ravens on Thanksgiving Night. Doesn't get much better than that. #SteelersFamily— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 26, 2013
Bleacher Report NFL Associate Editor Ian Kenyon waxes about Flacco.
I've said about 20x by now that there are 15-20 QBs I'd take over Joe Flacco. Maybe 20+ if you consider contract.— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) November 26, 2013
Alan Robinson, beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, offers some history.
Predictions and Implications
This game is huge. Huge like John Madden after a weekend turducken binge. Both teams fully understand that a division game like this is make-or-break. With such a muddied playoff picture, every game becomes exponentially more important than the last. It only adds fuel to the fire this will be a nationally televised event on one of the biggest football days of the year.
The logical person in me says that the Ravens have been very good at home and their defense in particular has been stout. That same logical person tells me the Steelers have struggled on the road this season and they are still contending with some injuries.
That logical person needs to just shut up. This game is going to be all Steelers. The Ravens are going to struggle to move the ball, and the Steelers are going to pick their shots on offense. Momentum is huge in the NFL, and right now there is no team with more of it than Pittsburgh.
It's doubtful this game comes down to a last-second field goal like in the previous matchup, but if it does so be it. The Steelers even have the edge there. Steelers fans will be able to be thankful at the end of Thursday that their team is still in the playoff hunt.
All stats provided by NFL.com.