Authors: Dan Bryden (@PlainMilksFine) and Chris Worthington (@C_Dubs87)
Though it took until mid-November, the game is finally here: the one we all wait for. The first one we think about when the schedule comes out. Ask any Baltimorean: there’s football, and then there is the Ravens-Steelers game. It’s something else entirely—more than another football game, more than another road trip, more than a division rivalry. It’s the win we all want, the win we have to have. The year is different, the rosters shift, we grow older, but some things never change. Coming down the stretch, Baltimore travels to Pittsburgh with a one game lead for the division. Stop us if you’ve heard that, or something similar, before.
Baltimore-Pittsburgh is an amazing rivalry. Let’s look at the numbers. Since the start of the 2010 season, the Ravens are 31-10 in the regular season. Pittsburgh is 30-11. The only difference in their record is the one game lead Baltimore has at the moment. Pittsburgh, with a 12-4 record, took the division in 2010. Baltimore, with a 12-4 record, took the division in 2011. Since the re-alignment of the divisions in 2002, either Pittsburgh or Baltimore has won the AFC North crown eight out of 10 years.
So much history in a short time. It’s just 16 years in the making, the rivalry—and really only about the last decade is definitive. Your writers remember some painful losses in that time. Joe Flacco trying, as a rookie, to take his team to the Superbowl, but having to match up against the much better Steelers. Ryan Clark’s hit on McGahee in that AFC Championship game. One of your writers watched the game on a laptop in Romania (it came on at 5 am) with several other fans that, like him, refused to miss the game. Then two years later taking a 21-7 halftime lead, looking unstoppable for one half, but watching Roethlisberger and the Steelers come back and take the win away.
With those and many other memories in mind, we look ahead to Sunday night. The rivalry hasn’t changed, and the stakes are as high as ever. But this one looks just a little bit different. Both teams enter this game with significant injuries. We all know about Baltimore’s. Two of the Ravens top three corners, Webb and Smith. The defensive captain and emotional leader, as well as ProFootballFocus’s third most efficient tackling linebacker, Ray Lewis. Suggs is still working his way back. Ngata is playing through several injuries. Reed is barely fighting through his. And Pittsburgh doesn’t look any better. We all know about Roethlisberger’s injuries stemming from the Kansas City game. Mendenhall has struggled to stay healthy after working his way back from a torn ACL. Troy Polamalu, David DeCastro, Antonio Brown, Marcus Gilbert. The list goes on. Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor got banged up against KC.
Yet both teams are well above .500, fighting for the division and the playoffs both. They are close in nearly every power rankings. As always, it will be a violent game. Historically, the backups have stepped up and played well for both teams. But right now, both teams have very distinct weaknesses. Let’s take a closer look to determine what will happen.
In Byron They Trust
Much has been made of how Leftwich fits into the new "dink and dunk" Todd Haley offense in Pittsburgh. After Roethlisberger went down in the KC game, Leftwich struggled. When interviewed he mentioned that the game didn’t "slow down" until his third drive. This showed on tape. Whether the offense didn’t change to fit Leftwich’s strengths or he just felt the jitters, things didn’t go well. Leftwich looked nervous in the pocket under minimal pressure and his accuracy was atrocious (sort of McNabb-esque, one-hopping throws downfield). Later in the game, Pittsburgh employed shorter routes and built-in check-downs to give him confidence (8 of 14 attempts traveled less than 10 yards and 5 of 7 receptions were under 10 yards). But that is based on a very small sample size against KC. The Steelers will likely change the game plan with a week to prepare for Baltimore.
We expect to see a lot of running. Pittsburgh’s base run game is Power/Counter and they don’t fluff it up much. They line up and try to get 3-4 YPC, often out of 12 personnel (two TEs, two WRs split wide, and a single back). They run sparingly out of pass formation, i.e. tight bunch or shotgun. The healthy RBs they do have (Redman and Dwyer) are not efficient at getting around the edge, so they run almost exclusively between the tackles. Against KC, when Dwyer was healthy, they gave him the majority of carries. Against New York, when Dwyer was not healthy, they gave Redman the ball 26 times. If both are healthy, they will likely split carries. Dwyer and Redman are both big, bruising running backs. They hit the hole hard and push forward but force very few missed tackles—in fact, against KC they forced none. RB Rainey is their only shifty back and he gets very few carries (mostly checkdown receptions).
When Pittsburgh does pass expect basic short passes (flat, swing, TE stick/pop) to the RBs and TE Heath Miller. Leftwich has a very strong arm, so the plan will be to open up deep passes to burners like Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders over the top. Fortunately for the Ravens, Leftwich has a VERY exaggerated throwing motion that can allow an extra split-second to apply pressure or to step in front of a pass. The Steelers OL will need to block well in both the passing and running game. They have been pretty good at both recently excluding RT Adams who we saw get beat inside (against NYG) and outside (against KC). Overall, he had very poor pass blocking games against both KC and NYG.
Baltimore’s linebackers will dictate how much running Pittsburgh does, and we expect them to be tested. The Pittsburgh OL does not jump to second level blocks well so Ellerbe, Suggs, McClain, and Upshaw need to take advantage. They will also be tested in passing game, particularly in the short/intermediate portion of the field. The Steelers like short throws to TE Miller (who has a similar skill set to Jason Witten and Brandon Myers; both had drive-sustaining success against Baltimore), and Pittsburgh will also throw shallow crosses to WRs.
The depleted Ravens secondary will be tested with deep throws. The Baltimore coaches will look to the Kansas City film because KC found success stopping the run while maintaining two deep safeties. Baltimore needs to make this strategy work as well. They would love to keep Reed and Pollard back to help the young corners, Williams and Brown, who will have a tough time particularly with Mike Wallace.
With Leftwich, the Pittsburgh offense will likely keep with the WR screens/fake WR screens that Roethlisberger threw in prior games, so expect the Baltimore CBs to play off coverage (especially if they feel they can gain an extra step to knock down a pass based on Leftwich’s throwing motion).
Loss of Polamalu: Not As Meaningful As It Seems?
For Pittsburgh’s defense, losing Polamalu hasn’t changed their strategy much. They still use their base 3-4 almost exclusively and play either Cover 3 or Cover 2-Man behind it. When playing their one deep safety strategy (Cover 3), the opposite safety will be very aggressive in run support or curl/flat responsibility. "Strong" and "Free" are just titles for their safeties; all of their safeties cover deep or come up hard to the LOS. They will use their two deep safety look in an attempt to "trap" QBs by rotating to Cover 3 late, like they did against KC:
Before the snap, Cassel is looking at two deep safeties. Based on the Steelers’ tendency, it is more than likely 2-Man, with Ryan Clark (Orange) and Will Allen as the high safeties.
However, at the snap, the corners #23 Keenan Lewis and #24 Ike Taylor "bail" to deep third responsibility allowing safety Ryan Clark to drive downhill toward the flat. Here is a little insight into what Ryan Clark is seeing: His responsibility in Cover 3 is "Curl/Flat", but there is no receiver threatening the flat so he is free to play the vertical receiver (Dwayne Bowe in this image). Dwayne Bowe stutters his feet at 8 yards allowing Clark to "jump" the route. Clark has a cushion, too, because if Bowe’s route is a double-move CB Taylor has the deep responsibility.
Bowe’s comeback route would be a great playcall on 3rd down against 2-Man. But the Steelers rotated to Cover 3 allowing Clark to break up the play. If it was a better throw to Bowe, this could have been a Pick-Six the other way.
We decided to break down this play for several reasons:
1) The Steelers two main coverages are Cover 3 and Cover 2-Man. Clearly they can transition between them within the same play.
2) The Ravens OL needs to hold up against the pass rush. If Flacco is pressured and believes that his primary read is open, like Cassel did here, the Steelers defense will take advantage.
3) The Steelers safeties are aggressive. They like to play downhill but this aggression can be held against them.
4) The Ravens no-huddle strategy can keep the Steelers from disguising coverages pre-snap and the sugar-huddle method can force the Pittsburgh DBs to "show their hand", assuming the snap is unpredictable.
For the Pittsburgh defense, the loss of Polamalu appears to only have impacted tackling efficiency (current safeties play hard to LOS and often miss tackles—they missed four against NYG) and blitz scheme (current safeties rarely blitz). As far as other coverages besides 2-man and Cover 3, they showed a little bit of classic Lebeau Fire Zone but teams can see this coming because the Steelers like to use it on 3rd down, and they tip their hand by lining up seven or eight guys to rush (then dropping two into short zones).
As a whole, the Pittsburgh defense played fairly well against the run in the Giants game, allowing only 68 yards on 22 attempts. However, they were gashed by KC’s zone scheme for 142 yards. Steelers LBs flow playside very quickly and often get caught up in the wash, which creates cut back lanes. Fortunately, the Ravens zone style is perfect to attack this. Ray Rice has the speed and agility to cut runs back and get outside for big gains. Additionally, Pittsburgh LB Ziggy Hood has been blown off the ball on runs, which allowed KC to successfully run to the Steelers left side.
Luckily for the Ravens, the Pittsburgh front seven have struggled a bit getting a pass rush. They maintain good gap control against the run, but we saw little penetration against the passing game. The exception is Brett Keisel, who had a great game vs. KC. If the Baltimore line can slow him down, Flacco may have some time to throw.
Overall, the Steelers are built on the bend but don’t break model and are taught to "tackle the catch" in their Cover 3. They don’t give up many YACs (only 65 of total 164 yards receiving vs. KC were YAC) but they give up receptions. Without the big play ability of Polamalu, this defense can be run and passed on. Ultimately, though, the Ravens will need to find success in the redzone. Pittsburgh is allowing the second-fewest points in the AFC (behind Houston), and Heinz Field is a notoriously tough place to kick field goals (at least toward the endzone by the river).
Baltimore’s success will be tied to the running game. Run success will open up play-action (taking advantage of aggressive LBs) for passes in the middle of the field and, of course, deep balls. In Pittsburgh’s Cover 3, the zone players like to peek in the backfield and bite on play action. If Baltimore can establish the running game, this could open up opportunities for big plays. We believe that the Ravens should lean heavily on Rice and see if they can exploit the Pittsburgh linebackers.
As always, our thanks to ProFootballFocus for the work they do. Most of our stats come from their team, and we highly recommend their articles, too.
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