Since the end of last season, the biggest question in the minds of the Ravens and their fans is how to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been the biggest obstacle on the road to the Ravens’ next Super Bowl victory, and in the Harbaugh-Flacco era, they have consistently beaten the Ravens in the regular season and the playoffs.
Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have a 2-6 record in eight total games, which include two playoff games. The Ravens have not beaten the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback and have not beaten them in the playoffs under John Harbaugh.
Since the Steelers are in the Ravens’ division, there is no hope for the Ravens to make the playoffs and subsequently win a Super Bowl without confronting the Steelers at some point. Since both teams are always competitive, games between them have playoff implications even early in the season. Unfortunately for the Ravens, the Steelers have won the majority of these hard-fought games and as a result, have won the division in two of the last three seasons.
The competition between the two teams is what stands out to any spectator. The Ravens and the Steelers are two very evenly matched teams. In fact, the average margin of victory for either side since 2008 has been only 4.4 points and for four straight games between 2009 and 2010, the game was decided by a field goal.
Furthermore, the Ravens last two losses occurred after they clearly outplayed the Steelers in the first half of the game, so if the Ravens are so competitive, why do the final results so heavily favor the Steelers?
“I can't say that they've outplayed us dramatically in any game, and I think we've outplayed them most of the times we've played them," John Harbaugh said. "Yet we've won two out of eight because we've allowed them to make the plays that have turned the game."
Those plays were extremely obvious in the last two games between the teams. In the second regular season game, everyone knew the winner of the game was likely to win the division. The stakes were high, and even though the Ravens played well enough to win the game with the score sitting at 10-6 in the fourth quarter, Troy Polamalu made the play of the game and stripped the ball from Joe Flacco. That play ultimately lead to a touchdown that won the game for the Steelers.
In the playoff game, the Steelers rallied back from being down 14 points at halftime, and with the game tied, Roethlisberger was able to convert a third and 19 play to setup a game winning touchdown. Like Harbaugh said, the Steelers always seem to make the plays it takes to win games.
There’s no doubting their talent. The Steelers have some of the best playmakers in the league, and unlike many teams that seem to put most of their talent on one side of the ball, they are a relatively balanced team with playmakers on offense and defense.
The Steelers defense is definitely the strength of the team. Players like LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu always seem to step up in big games, but the offensive playmakers cannot be overlooked either. Ben Roethlisberger has played some of his best games versus the Ravens, and Mike Wallace is emerging as the next Raven-killing wide receiver after Santonio Holmes’ departure.
When considering the talent the Steelers have, it’s no wonder why the Ravens have had a difficult time beating them. Many people like to make the Flacco-Roethlisberger comparison and emphasize that Flacco has never beaten Roethlisberger. That comparison is not fair since Flacco is the younger quarterback playing the tougher defense, the Steelers have been the better defense since 2007, and Roethlisberger is the more experienced quarterback playing the easier defense, albeit still very good. The Ravens’ losses to the Steelers are the result of the Steelers’ playmakers on both sides of the ball and the Ravens’ lack of playmakers on offense.
"I think it has to do with the way they're built, and they've got some veteran guys that have been doing that for a long time. We've got some of that. If you look at a lot of the games we've won, it's been Ed Reed and Ray Lewis making those kind of plays,” John Harbaugh said. "I think we'll continue to build that on the offensive side. They've probably got a little more on both sides of the ball right now. I mean, their defense, they've got two outside linebackers and a safety that just come up with plays. And they've got a quarterback that creates plays. And I think that's where we're going. That's what we're trying to build, and we'll get there."
The Ravens have the talent to beat the Steelers, but what do they have to do to make that happen? On offense, the Steelers are tough to stop late in games. The Steelers typically keep games close with their defense and then rely on Roethlisberger, who is remarkably hard to bring down when the defense is exhausted, to engineer a game winning drive late in the game. Since the defense is consistently good, their strategy has been difficult to beat and has lead to two Super Bowl victories under Roethlisberger.
The key to stopping the Steelers on offense is pressure on Roethlisberger, and the Ravens know that. They were able to get pressure on Roethlisberger last season early in the games. Unfortunately, the Ravens’ pass-rush slowed down throughout each game, and by the fourth quarter, Big Ben was back in form. The slow, tired pass-rushers were the reasoning behind only sending three blitzers on the third and 19 play in the playoff game. If the Ravens give Roethlisberger time, he will win the game for the Steelers.
On defense, the Steelers are the toughest team in the league. Their defense revolves around the pass rush from their outside linebackers. Dick LeBeau’s scheme, which is incredible complex and effective, will keep teams guessing.
The Steelers defense rarely shows any weakness, but if they are liable in any area, it’s in their secondary. Their best cornerback, Ike Taylor, is a free agent that will probably return, but they have very little quality or depth behind him.
The key to beating the Steelers is really to beat their defense. The first step is stopping the outside pass rush, and the only way to stop their pass rush without retaining extra blockers is to have quality tackles. On the Polamalu strip-sack, the Ravens saw what happens when you play the Steelers without quality tackles. Quality tackles not only negate the edge rush but they also help the inside rush since the guards will not need to shift outside for support.
The second step to beat the Steelers defense is to spread them out. This weakness was perfectly exploited by the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. When teams spread out the Steelers by putting out four to five wide receivers, it not only takes advantage of their lack of depth in the secondary but also forces them to take off a few of their elite front seven players. Either the Steelers try covering wide receivers with linebackers or take their linebackers, their best players, off the field in favor of their fourth or fifth corner backs, their worst players.
There’s no doubt the Ravens can beat the Steelers. Pressuring Roethlisberger, stopping the pass-rush and spreading out the defense are the tangible keys to victory, but even if the Ravens execute in those areas, they could still lose the close games. The Steelers have one of the biggest intangibles on their side…confidence.
"They have those two Super Bowl trophies in the last five years, so they have the confidence," Steve Bisciotti, the Ravens owner said. "Does confidence beget success? Yeah, it does in a lot of situations. We've got to get there. When we get there, we're going to be more confident."
Confidence may be the biggest reason why the Ravens lose games to the Steelers. The Ravens defense has tons of confidence, maybe even too much, but there’s no denying that the Ravens offense has been intimidated by the Steelers defense in the past. The Ravens offense goes into a game hoping to win the game, but the Steelers defense goes in knowing they will win the game… and that they will probably make the play to win it.
In order for the Ravens to consistently win games versus the Steelers and ultimately move past them on their way to their next Super Bowl victory, the Ravens need to have game plans for the Steelers offense and defense, but even more than that, they need to have more confidence in themselves and their team…particularly on offense.