Previewing Week 4: Steelers at Ravens
The Ravens got embarrassed in London. There are no other ways to describe what happened, but as John Harbaugh rightly pointed out a loss is a loss in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it’s fair to be concerned with how the team played and it’s also fair to worry if it the issues we saw Sunday will crop up in future games, and for better or worse, the Ravens will have one of the biggest games of the season to respond as the Steelers come to Baltimore in a match-up that will determine who sits atop the AFC North. While the Steelers did not suffer the same level of beatdown that the Ravens endured this past week, they did lose on the road to an inferior Chicago Bears team. Not that either team needed extra motivation heading into this heated rivalry game, but one has to think both teams will be hungry to prove that the previous week’s loss was a fluke. Heading into week 4, both the Steelers and Ravens have some real questions to answer on both sides of the ball.
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Heading into the 2017 season, the Steelers were hailed as one of the best offenses in the NFL. The team is stacked with talent across the board led by QB Ben Roethlisberger, All-Pros Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and one of the best offensive lines in the league. Through 3 games, the offense has massively underperformed averaging a meager 302 YPG and 21 PPG. Brown has largely looked like himself, but after holding out for the entire pre-season, Bell has not performed well averaging only 3.5 YPA and 4.3 YPR while managing to get into the endzone only once. Roethlisberger has looked somewhat off as well, averaging only 6.7 YPA which is far below his career mark of 7.9. Martavis Bryant has returned from suspension but is yet to make a major impact in the offense.
That said, the Steelers still have a very dangerous offense and Dean Pees is going to need to come with a gameplan that can continue to contain Bell and generate enough pressure on Roethlisberger to force him into mistakes. Generally speaking, the Ravens defense has managed to contain Roethlisberger fairly well although there have been games in which he has torched them as well. One thing to look for in this game is how often the Ravens bring blitz pressure. Through 3 games, Pees has barely dialed up any blitzes, relying mostly on a 4 man pass-rush to get home while dropping 7 into coverage. While this approach proved to be effective in the first 2 weeks, in week 3 the defensive front 4 were wildly ineffective. Part of this could be attributed to the loss of Brandon Williams and Brent Urban, but the Ravens OLBs were a complete non-factor against the Jaguars.
Against the Steelers, the OLBs led by Terrell Suggs will have to be better whether Pees decides to blitz more frequently or not. The Ravens run defense will obviously have a stiff task facing Le’Veon Bell, but taking him away as a pass-catcher may be an even tougher task. C.J. Mosley has had issues covering Bell out of the backfield in the past and LBs Kamalei Correa and Patrick Onwuasor are relatively inexperienced. The Ravens LBs vs Bell will be an important match-up to watch. On the outside the Ravens CBs have been a strength of the team through 3 games. The majority of opposing teams damage in the passing game has come through TEs and slot receivers. Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr will have their hands full with Brown and Bryant, but Eli Rogers and TE Jesse James against the Ravens safeties may prove to be another key match-up.
While the Steelers offense has underperformed, their defense has been as good as advertised heading into the season. They may not have the type of dominant performances the Ravens defense posted in weeks 1 and 2, but through 3 weeks they are limiting opposing offenses to 259 YPG and 16.7 PPG, good for 2nd and 3rd best in the NFL, respectively. The Steelers are also 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 11, and this is a team that has barely played James Harrison while 1st round pick OLB T.J. Watt missed time as well with an injury. The good news for the Steelers is they may be getting both Watt and DE Stephon Tuitt back for week 4 which for may be a problem for the Ravens. How the Ravens offensive line handles the pass rush led by OLB Bud Dupree and DE Cam Heyward will go a long way towards deciding how effective the Ravens offense will be.
Even though the Steelers pass defense has been extremely effective through 3 weeks, it may still be a unit the Ravens can exploit if they use the right strategy. Marty Mornhinweg will need to orchestrate a quick hitting passing attack implementing lots of slants, shallow crosses and quick outs and comebacks. The mantra should be three step drop and get the ball out as the Ravens use their speed at WR to create early separation rather than waiting for long developing downfield plays. It’s unlikely that the Ravens OL will be able to hold up very long, although QB Joe Flacco may look for a couple of deep shots on play-action and designed roll-outs just to keep the defense honest. The one place the Ravens offense may have an advantage is in the run game. Last week, Alex Collins looked like a potential difference maker as his vision and quickness make him a good fit for the Ravens rushing attack. The Steelers have had some issues in run defense, letting Dalvin Cook pick up some big gains in week 2 while Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen carved up the Steelers for over 200 yards last week. On the season the Steelers are allowing opposing backs to pick up 4.4 YPA. A combination of the short passing game with efficient running should help the Ravens control time of possession and keep what can be a high powered Steelers offense off the field.
After a blowout loss in week 3, it can be hard to see the Ravens bounce back to beat a quality team like the Steelers, but because of the nature of the rivalry and how well these teams know each other, I think we will see a close and hard fought game. The Ravens can’t afford the turnovers and sloppy play that doomed them against the Jaguars. If they can play clean game, limiting mistakes and penalties, the Ravens have a formula for success, but in the end too much has to go right for this game to be a win. It will be close, but I have the Steelers winning 23-19.
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.