Going into the game Sunday, most Ravens fans were cautiously optimistic about the chances of the Ravens beating the Pittsburgh Steelers. We knew that the Ravens had spent all offseason fixing the team after a meltdown versus the Steelers in the playoffs.
The Ravens addressed the problem areas that failed during the playoff loss by bringing in players to strengthen the offensive and defensive lines during the long offseason. It was clear that the Steelers were in the Ravens’ sights, and they knew that they needed to be able to beat the Steelers before they could do anything serious as a team.
The Ravens had the players heading into the game. There was no question about that. The only question remaining was whether or not the team would have the chemistry to beat the Steelers in the first game. The edge automatically went to the Steelers because they kept the majority of their team together while the Ravens brought in the new talent.
It was clear what the Ravens were doing and that the long-term plan was a good one. Most people believed that the Ravens could win the game, but no one was expecting the beatdown that they gave the Steelers on Sunday—not even the Ravens.
Dissecting exactly how the Ravens were able to thoroughly beat the Steelers requires a good understanding of how Baltimore is built. They are a team that is built around fundamental football and the offensive and defensive lines.
This isn’t anything new for the Ravens. They have had great lines in the past, but under head coach John Harbaugh, they have focused on building that strength. Their philosophy is to play fundamentally sound football and force the other team to do so if they want to win.
That’s the beauty of a fundamentally sound team. If all the pieces come together, the only way to beat them is to play better football. Gimmicks won’t work. Elaborate passing attacks won’t work against the defense, and exotic blitz schemes won’t work against the offense. The only way to beat a team that’s playing good fundamental football is to play better football.
That starts up front with the offensive and defensive lines. Dominating the line of scrimmage is the key to playing good fundamentals. If the offensive line can dominate the line of scrimmage, the defense will need to commit more defenders to stopping the run. This frees up receivers and sets up one-on-one matchups with defenders. In other words, the offensive line will make the passing game better by forcing the defense to sell-out to stop the run.
On the defensive side of the ball, stopping the run is the most important task. In the modern day NFL, most teams fear the elite quarterbacks and focus on stopping passing attacks. The natural assumption is to play more guys in coverage, but the fact is that doesn’t work by itself no matter how talented the players are.
The only way to stop good quarterbacks is to pressure them and make them uncomfortable in the pocket. This is always a trade-off since sending more players to blitz means that there will be less in coverage. This is why defensive line play is so important.
If the base defensive line can pressure the quarterback while stopping the run, the opposing offense is going to have an extremely hard time moving the ball. That’s why the defensive line is so important and good defensive line play is a big part of fundamental football.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t always worked out perfectly for the Ravens. They have always had decent offensive and defensive lines, but last season, they had failures and key weaknesses on both lines.
On the offensive line, left tackle Michael Oher was a liability. Oher was an excellent right tackle but doesn’t have the size to play left tackle. On the defensive line, the Ravens didn’t really have a pass-rusher except outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, and that showed in games versus good quarterbacks since the defense couldn’t get off the field.
The Ravens added Bryant McKinnie to fix their offensive line problem. McKinnie came with critics, and people were wondering how a Pro Bowl left tackle that showed up out of shape in Minnesota could help the Ravens.
McKinnie silenced all doubters in his first game with the Ravens. His dominating size, 6’8” and 360 pounds, was the key in not only allowing Ray Rice to run over the Steelers for over 100 yards but also protecting Flacco from All-Pro outside linebacker James Harrison.
On the defensive line, the Ravens have added rookie fifth-round pick Pernell McPhee, who was a force on passing downs. But even more than that, the Ravens have built around their best player, Haloti Ngata. The Ravens don’t have many different players from last season. The only thing different is a commitment to pressuring the quarterback.
Ngata has become the best defensive lineman in the league and is unrivaled in his ability to collapse the pocket. His presence frees up players like Suggs, McPhee and defensive end Cory Redding to get after the quarterback.
In the game versus the Steelers, the Steelers offensive line had to devote several offensive linemen to stop Ngata, which freed up Suggs to sack Roethlisberger three times. The ability to generate pressure with their base defensive line made the secondary look outstanding despite having three injured players in the game.
For the Ravens, it was the offensive line that set the tone against the Steelers and the defensive line that finished the game. It wasn’t a fluke performance but was simply a good plan coming together. This is how the Ravens are built. They are built to dominate the line on both sides of the ball, and in the AFC North, that is a winning formula.