7 Keys to Victory in Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 4 Matchup

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 28, 2017

7 Keys to Victory in Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 4 Matchup

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    The 2-1 Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Baltimore on Sunday to take on their rival Ravens, who also sit at 2-1.

    Though both teams suffered embarrassing losses in Week 3, only one can find redemption and an early command of the AFC North in Week 4.

    Here are seven keys to a Steelers win over Baltimore as they attempt to avoid a two-game slide after opening the season with two straight victories.

Don't Underestimate the Opponent

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    There's no reason to believe the Steelers don't see the Ravens as a threat, given they have two wins to their name (compared to last week's Bears, who were 0-2 prior to Sunday's game) and the storied history between the two teams.

    However, Baltimore's loss in London to the Jacksonville Jaguars—a 44-7 drubbing in which the Ravens had only 186 yards of offense—may lull the Steelers into a false sense of security.

    Though the Steelers have come away winners in 10 of the 19 games they've played against Baltimore while Ben Roethlisberger has served as the starting quarterback, they have had little luck when playing on the Ravens' home turf.

    As NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala pointed out, Roethlisberger's last road win in Baltimore came in 2010 (their last win there came in 2012, with Charlie Batch under center).

    Though Pittsburgh tends to bounce back well after a road loss—12 wins, four losses since 2014—this is a different beast. The Ravens have won three of the last four games the two teams have played and have even more face to save after suffering a much bigger and more dramatic defeat in Week 3 than the Steelers.

    This will be a motivated Ravens team that already had the upper hand going into this game regardless of the results of Week 3. Pittsburgh has to be ready for them, certainly more so than they were for the Bears last week. 

Win in the Trenches

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    Controlling the game at the line of scrimmage is a goal all NFL teams have every week, but there are few rivalries that seem to hinge on it as much as the one between the Steelers and the Ravens.

    It will be a major factor in who wins on Sunday, and luckily for the Steelers they should have the advantage.

    Baltimore's offensive line was already in bad shape heading into the season, with guard John Urschel retiring. Now, multi-year Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda's season has come to an end after injuring his ankle in Week 2.

    The revamped line will have to manage a Steelers' defensive front that is on pace to get stronger in Week 4. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who has been out after a biceps injury in Week 1, and linebacker T.J. Watt, who missed Week 3 with a groin problem, are both on track to play, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Chris Adamski.

    Pittsburgh, though, will have its hands full with Baltimore's defensive front, despite the loss of Brent Urban to a Lisfranc injury this week, per the official Ravens website.

    The Ravens forced 10 turnovers in their first two games thanks to pressure brought by its defensive line and linebackers, and they have totaled eight sacks on the season. The good news for Pittsburgh, though, is that right tackle Marcus Gilbert is set to return after missing Week 3.

    Further, neither Pittsburgh nor Baltimore are producing big, game-breaking plays that require the lines to work even harder on early downs to either prevent (when on offense) or cause (when on defense) third-and-longs.

    Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is last in the league in both yards per pass attempt and passing yards per game.

    Ben Roethlisberger hasn't thrown a touchdown pass that has traveled 20 or more yards in the air this year, and the offense as a whole is producing its worst numbers in the QB's era in many key areas.

    What happens between the lines on first and second downs will dictate the complexion of the game, and Pittsburgh must be the more dominant team in order to get this win.

Take Advantage of All Scoring Opportunities

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    Whether Sunday's game against the Ravens is a high-scoring or low, history says it will be close.

    Since 2008, when Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh came aboard as Baltimore's quarterback and head coach, respectively, 16 of the 21 games between the Steelers and Ravens have been decided by seven or fewer points, with 12 of those matches decided by three or fewer. There's no reason to think that won't be the case in Week 4.

    Thus, the Steelers must take advantage of every scoring opportunity they earn, converting those into touchdowns rather than field goals. It's hard to say how many they will get, but it's clear based on the past 10 years' worth of games that each one will matter.

    So far this year, Pittsburgh is averaging 3.3 red-zone scoring attempts per game, though that number drops to three on the road. They are scoring touchdowns on those attempts 60 percent of the time, though it dips to just 50 percent when on the road.

    Comparatively, Baltimore is averaging 2.7 red-zone attempts per game, which rises to four when playing at home. The Ravens also do better at scoring touchdowns on their home field, doing so 75 percent of the time compared to their 62.5 season-long average. 

    It's not surprising that the Steelers manage to score more points at home than on the road; home-field advantage is described as such for a reason.

    Considering these two teams have kept scores close so often, though, the Steelers must do a better job getting touchdowns out of their red-zone possessions than they have done in earlier games this year.

    One missed opportunity is all it will take for the Steelers to falter in Baltimore.

Stop the Run

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    Last week, the Steelers defense knew what was ahead in the shape of Mike Glennon—not much, as it turns out, with the quarterback and the Bears' passing offense held to only 84 total yards.

    It turned out that didn't matter, though, with the Steelers ultimately losing in overtime and being gashed by Chicago's run game to the tune of 220 yards and Bears back Jordan Howard scoring two rushing touchdowns.

    So, while Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco might be having just as rough a year as Glennon, with an average of 122 yards passing per game (and just 28 yards on eight completions against Jacksonville in Week 3), the Steelers cannot assume he will again struggle and that any subsequent one-dimensional, run-heavy offense will be easy to shut down.

    Baltimore has three running backs who are over the 100-yard mark this year: Javorius "Buck" Allen, Terrance West and Alex Collins. As a result, the Ravens rank tops in the league in rushing attempts and fourth in rushing yards. And that trio will be getting a lot of work again on Sunday.

    Pittsburgh will have to pay close attention to the myriad things that did not work defensively against Chicago to prevent a repeat defeat in Baltimore. 

Third-Down Improvement

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    If the Steelers can stave off the Ravens' defensive front and win the battle in the trenches, it is only the first step to offensive success. Their next is to convert in third-down situations and to ensure they aren't of the long variety.

    So far this year, the Steelers have converted just 32.43 percent of their third downs and 37.5 when on the road, down from a 42.74 percent average a year ago. That's just 12 conversions on the 37 third downs they've thus far faced.

    Making matters worse, as Steelers Depot's Dave Bryan pointed out, is that 21 of those third downs—or 56.8 percent of them—have required seven or more yards to convert. And the Steelers have converted only two of those.

    Sustaining a drive goes out the window when an offense cannot convert on third downs, but that same offense also sets itself up for failure on those attempts when the plays run on first and second downs don't gain enough yardage to make third downs more manageable.

    Improving the run game is one way to do so; Bryan notes that the Steelers have thus far run the ball 32 times on first down but have had successful runs just 10 times, or 31.3 percent of the time.

    Roethlisberger reining in his deep pass attempts on second downs is another; the deep ball hasn't been there much for him this season and when a failed run play is followed by a second-down incompletion, Pittsburgh's back is immediately against the wall.

    Shorter third downs have been much easier for the Steelers to convert—they've done so on 10 of their 16 third downs with six or fewer yards to gain. Thus, Roethlisberger and the offense must find themselves in that situation more often this Sunday in order to get the upper hand over Baltimore.

    The Ravens have the best third-down defense in the league, allowing conversions only 24.32 percent of the time and just 16.67 percent when playing at home. The Steelers must not make worse what will already be a difficult situation.

Give Bell the Ball

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    The Steelers have struggled to convert third downs this year, primarily a result of the team facing too many that require gains of seven or more yards. And not coincidentally, it's been a slow start to the season for Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell. Pittsburgh may thus be able to fix their third-down problems and extend their drives by having Bell more involved from the start of the game.

    Through three weeks, Bell has rushed only 52 times for 180 yards and one touchdown, therefore averaging 17 carries per game. Last week he rushed only 15 times, for 61 yards and his first score of the season. And while head coach Mike Tomlin attributed the lack of running to being behind in Chicago, he also said: "The only issue I feel like we had with our run game in the last game was volume or lack thereof." 

    Not only is this lack of balance turning the Steelers into a predictably pass-heavy offense, it's also not taking advantage of Bell's strengths.

    Sure, Bell is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, a far cry from his 4.9-yard average a season ago, but he's also not getting the same volume of work. And even if his carries net the Steelers three to four yards at a time, two of those runs back-to-back put the Steelers in a manageable third-down situation and not the long ones they have so frequently failed to convert this year.

    Bell needs the opportunity to build up in-game momentum, which means the Steelers must be more committed to running the ball against Baltimore this week.

    The more carries he gets, the more Bell will begin to regain his form, and once that occurs the Steelers can return to having a well-balanced and successful offense.

    Baltimore is allowing 4.3 yards per rush to opposing backs this year; their imposing defensive front still possesses this flaw and the Steelers should exploit it using Bell.

Avoid Turnovers

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    The Steelers offense has done a good job keeping the football secure this season, with just three total turnovers.

    Ben Roethlisberger has thrown only one interception, while the team has lost two fumbles—one via a Bears sack on the quarterback a week ago. But the Ravens defense has been a takeaway machine so far in 2017, with 10, eight of those being interceptions.

    If Pittsburgh's run game disappears yet again, that means another pass-heavy Sunday for Roethlisberger, which also equates to more chances for the Ravens' opportunistic defense to pounce.

    Roethlisberger has to both be careful in Baltimore this week as well as more varied when it comes to where he's throwing the ball and to whom. Of his 69 completed passes, 26 have been caught by wideout Antonio Brown. And though it's produced results, to the tune of 354 yards and a touchdown through three games, it also makes it obvious to Baltimore where Roethlisberger will be looking most often this week.

    In fact, it is something Roethlisberger himself acknowledged when speaking to 93.7 FM The Fan in Pittsburgh this week (via Steelers Depot):

    "I know where [Brown is] going to be and sometimes that forces me to just zone in to him, because we've created big plays and we make things happen. And I just need to be better at taking what the defense gives us and making the right throw."

    Brown may be hard to defend, but Baltimore's defense has done a good job of intercepting passes with great anticipation this season, and they will certainly be anticipating Roethlisberger trying to repeatedly connect with his favorite weapon.

    Roethlisberger should try to take his own advice—taking what the defense gives him—and do a better job of spreading the ball around, if only to keep the ball-hawking Ravens on their toes.