The Baltimore Ravens will be playing the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night in a game that has been marked on the calendar by the Steelers, the Ravens and the fans. The Steelers want to redeem themselves for their horrible performance that led to a 34-7 loss versus the Ravens on opening day, and the Ravens would love to sweep the Steelers and take the lead in the AFC North.
Both teams know what’s at stake here. Last season, the second meeting between the two teams ultimately determined the division. That’s likely to be the case this year as well and adds a playoff-like atmosphere to the game.
Since the Ravens dominated the Steelers in Week 1, both teams have taken different paths. The Ravens have struggled to find consistency on offense and have lost to two mediocre teams (the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars), while the Steelers have seemed to get better each week and have only lost to good teams, the Ravens and the Houston Texans.
That being said, the Ravens have played and beaten some tougher teams. They’ve beaten the Texans and the New York Jets while most of the Steelers victories have come against weaker teams—except last week’s impressive win over the New England Patriots.
That being said, there’s no real question the Steelers are going into this game with more momentum and seemingly more motivation. They also have a dangerous offense with speedy receivers and Ben Roethlisberger, who always seems to find ways to extend plays against the Ravens' aggressive defense. Those factors along with the Ravens’ struggles on offense and the home-field advantage have many analysts picking the Steelers to win this game.
That would seem like the most logical conclusion at first, but there are several reasons why the Ravens could actually shock the Steelers and pull off the upset.
First and foremost, the Ravens will not beat anyone if they cannot solve the offensive issues that they’ve struggled with this season. They’ve struggle to protect quarterback Joe Flacco, run the ball and, perhaps most of all, find any consistency with the receivers. That will not cut it against the Steelers, and anyone could tell you the Ravens will simply get embarrassed if they struggle against the Steelers.
Luckily, the Ravens did show some signs of life starting at the end of the first half in the last game against the Arizona Cardinals. For the first time all season, it seemed like offensive coordinator Cam Cameron had accepted the limitations of his offense and started to game plan around its strengths.
Historically, Flacco is a much better passer out of shotgun sets, and according to offensive notes by Filmstudy, Cameron called plays from the shotgun on 44 of the Ravens' last 51 plays starting with the last drive of the first half. That was a big reason behind the success that the Ravens offense had last week, but perhaps the biggest factor was the adjustment to the play calling.
The Ravens opened up their short passing game against the Cardinals and it was very effective. They worked the underneath routes with tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, they worked the sidelines with Anquan Boldin and kept the defense honest by throwing in screens and draws to Ray Rice. The biggest effect of this offensive game plan is that it completely negates any attempt by the defense to rush the passer. For once, the Ravens used a game plan that is often used against their defense, and it worked well because it not only covered up the problems the Ravens have in pass protection but it also played to the strengths of Flacco.
The difference between the effectiveness of the offense in the first and second halves of the game was remarkable as the Ravens scored 21 unanswered points in the second half after only scoring six total points in the first half.
There was no better indication of the offense's success than the exhaustion shown by the Cardinal defenders in the second half. Most of them were walking around with their hands on their hips and breathing heavily between plays, and on both quarterback sneaks in the second half, the Cardinals defense didn’t even get set and gave the Ravens offense easy conversions.
There’s no question the Ravens offense still has plenty of issues, but if it can build on the game-plan used against the Cardinals, there’s no reason Baltimore cannot go into Pittsburgh and come out with a win. It won’t have anywhere near the success it had against the Cardinals because the Steelers defense is much better than the Cardinals, but it won’t need to. The Steelers game is unlikely to be a shootout, so simply being capable of generating offensive yardage should be enough to win the game.
One thing is for sure: The Ravens defense is excellent this season and will be playing its best on Sunday night. It matches up very well against the Steelers and has put more pressure on Roethlisberger than any other defense in the league. There’s no reason to believe it won’t bottle up the Steelers offense.
Therefore, the Ravens just need to do enough on offense to win the game, and if they use their short passing game to negate the Steelers’ pressure on Flacco, they could find just enough success to tip the game in their favor. Once the Ravens get any sort of edge with their offense and can keep from turning the ball over, the defense can take over the game as the opposing offense is forced to throw. We saw that happen in the last game against the Steelers as the Ravens offense put the pressure on the Steelers offense to keep up.
The bottom line is that the Ravens are a very dangerous team when they get the offense working for the defense. Any time they can put pressure on the opposing offense to score fast, good things happen. The Ravens have struggled with their offense so far this season, but they showed an intelligent game plan for the first time last week. If they can successfully implement that same plan against the Steelers, there’s no reason to believe they cannot win the game and, ultimately, the division.