Previewing Week 4: Ravens at Steelers
It’s Steelers week! The Ravens will head into Heinz Field next Sunday night coming off of a resounding home win over the visiting Denver Broncos. It was an ugly start for Baltimore in week 3, but after letting up a blocked punt and two quick 1st quarter scores the defense tightened up and allowed zero points over the final 52 minutes of the game. The offense continued to play well with Joe Flacco finding several different receivers down field for big gains, and the running game showed some signs of life with both Alex Collins and Buck Allen finding the endzone. After three weeks the Ravens are one of just two teams in the NFL with a top 5 scoring offense and defense, and they will no doubt be in for a stiff test against a Steelers team that has been very inconsistent through the first 3 weeks and just now earned their first victory of the season in a close Monday night game.
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One of the biggest storylines in the NFL this season has been the holdout of the Steelers star RB Le’Veon Bell who looks like he is going to miss his 4th straight regular season game. He has been a killer against the Ravens in recent games, and while James Conner has performed admirably in his stead, the Steelers offense has not looked the same without him although they have still moved the ball well.
If we look at DVOA, the Steelers offense is rated 9th best in the NFL which is still quite good if slightly worse than 2017 when they finished 3rd. In comparison, the Ravens finished 2017 as the 21st rated offense and are 13th best offense through 3 weeks in 2018. On defense, the Ravens are 5th in the NFL after finishing 3rd last season while the Steelers 9th in 2017 and have dropped down to 19th so far in 2018. For the Steelers this should come as no real surprise as they are missing two of their best playmakers in LB Ryan Shazier on defense and Bell on offense.
Conversely, the Ravens made a concerted effort to improve their offense, and the passing game in particular has gotten much better improving from the 26th rated passing attack up to 11th. However, the Ravens rushing attack has significantly fallen off as they were the 7th rated rushing offense in 2017 and are the 22nd best through three games in 2018. The Steelers have had small but not insignificant drop-offs in both their rushing and passing offenses, dropping from 4th and 6th to 14th and 12th, respectively.
Once again, this is no great surprise for the Steelers as the drop off in efficiency can largely be attributed to the loss of Bell. For the Ravens, the additions of John Brown, Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and rookie TE Mark Andrews have proven to be quite impactful for the passing game. However, the Ravens offensive line has also undergone significant changes, and the unit that finished the season strongly in 2017 has regressed in a major way, especially in their run blocking.
Pittsburgh’s defense is somewhat better against the pass than against the run, likely because they have been able to create a fairly formidable pass-rush in the typical Steelers blitz-happy manner. Through 3 weeks the Steelers have blitzed 31.9% of QB drop-backs, the 6th highest rate in the NFL and they will likely continue this approach against the Ravens. There are a number of different approaches that Marty Mornhinweg can use to combat an aggressive defense such as implementing screen plays, play action and designed mis-direction. I also expect the Ravens to use a number of 6 and 7 man blocking schemes, similar to how they slowed down the Broncos pass-rush. Joe Flacco should have ample opportunity to attack the Steelers LBs and secondary who have allowed a number of big plays this season. Without Shazier the middle of the defense is vulnerable as their LBs are not able to match up well against quicker slot receivers and athletic TEs like Snead and Andrews. The Steelers have also proven to be a bit vulnerable on the edges in the running game, so I would expect the Ravens to attack the Steelers with some pitch plays and outside zone plays to make their LBs cover the whole field.
On defense, the Ravens success is going to hinge on their ability to pressure Ben Roethlisberger. We have seen time and time again, when Roethlisberger is given time to sit in the pocket he will pick apart the Ravens defense with the myriad receiving threats in the Steelers offense. Although Antonio Brown has had a relatively slow start to the 2018 season, he is still without a doubt one of the best WRs in the NFL. Across from Brown, the Ravens will have to contend with one of the rising stars in the NFL, 2nd year WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers have also gotten excellent production from their TEs Jesse James and Vance McDonald, and Conner has been effective in the passing game as well.
I think the Ravens may try a bracket approach in an attempt to limit Brown using CB Brandon Carr and a safety over top. This will mean a lot of one on one coverage for Marlon Humphrey on Smith-Schuster and also LBs Kenny Young and C.J. Mosley (if he is back) on the Steelers TEs and RBs. Alternatively, the Ravens may try to implement some zone coverages or perhaps a combination of these two approaches along with some more straight up man principles. The goal should be to confuse Roethlisberger with different coverages while trying to generate pressure with the front 4 led by Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale will also likely bring extra pressure against Roethlisberger, but it’s always a gamble to blitz against him as he has a knack to extend plays and find open receivers.
I do think the Ravens defense will be fairly effective at stopping the Steelers running game, but they have proven to be vulnerable to offenses running the ball against them in spread formations. The defense will have to be wary of the Steelers using tempo and limiting substitutions along the Ravens deep defensive line. If the Steelers try to establish the run early against the Ravens base defense (which they have done in the past) it should prove advantageous for the visiting team.
In the end, I anticipate this game to be fairly high scoring as many recent Ravens – Steelers match-ups have been. The Ravens are playing better football right now, so I think they will have a chance to win this one, but I am going predict a close loss on the road in Pittsburgh 30 – 34.
Gabe is an avid fan of the NFL and Ravens football. He grew up in Westminster, MD, and attended college at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biology. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and now works as a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he studies cartilage development and cancer. Gabe has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan.