Circled on calendars for months and it’s finally here, Ravens/Steelers act two. The Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh on Christmas Day, looking to pick up its fifth straight win over the Steelers and set themselves in prime position to win the AFC North. This game will be one of the Ravens most difficult tests of the season. Not only is the game in Pittsburgh, but the Ravens will be without top corner Jimmy Smith.
Smith was seen in a protective boot on Friday, and with the Ravens official release it’s now certain the star corner will not be playing. While the loss of one player is not often the difference in a game, it very well could be against the Steelers.
Ravens D Success RK— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 15, 2016
With CB Jimmy Smith:
#1 overall, 39% success rate allowed
#6 v pass, 43%
#27 overall, 49%
#32 v pass, 53%
The gap in performance of the Ravens secondary is dramatic with and without Jimmy Smith. With Jimmy, the Ravens have the sixth best pass defense in the NFL and the number one overall defense. Without him, the Ravens have the sixth worst defense in the NFL and the worst secondary. While that jump in production may seem too large to be true, consider the the performance of the Ravens defense against New England in Week 14 with and without Smith. With Smith, the Patriots offense was virtually shut down. Smith would get injured in the first quarter, and Tom Brady would go on to throw for over 400 yards.
The game being in Pittsburgh will also play a huge role. Ben Roethlisberger is considerably better at home this season. His completion percentage at Heinz Field is over 70%. He has passed for 17 touchdowns at home and while only throwing three interceptions. Simultaneously, the Ravens have struggled away from Baltimore in 2016. The Ravens are 6-2 at home, 2-4 on the road. The Ravens worst two defensive performances this season have been on the road (@Dallas, @New England).
The numbers don’t lean towards a Ravens victory on Sunday. A healthy Steelers offense against a banged up Ravens secondary gives a clear advantage to Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. But the Ravens are capable of winning this game. Here’s how.
1. Stop the run
The Ravens run defense needs to recover from last week’s poor performance against the Eagles. The Steelers rushing attack is exponentially better than the Eagles, making slowing Le’Veon Bell a must. Forcing the Steelers to lean on the pass allows the safeties to drop back and provide help to Tavon Young and Shareece Wright, instead of coming up to provide help against Bell.
2. Tavon Young continues to play well
Tavon Young is likely going to find himself matched up with Antonio Brown. The rookie will be immediately thrown into the fire in the biggest game of his young career. But Young has continually impressed against receivers that would seem to have a matchup advantage over him. The Ravens will obviously try to help Young, likely keeping Eric Weddle on the same side of the field as Brown at all times, but Young will have to do much of the dirty work. Young will not be able to shut down Brown, but preventing Brown from creating the game changing play will be essential.
3. Big plays from Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman
If the Ravens defense struggles, the Ravens offense will need to show the fire power to keep up with the Steelers. Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman will be called upon to create a big play. The Ravens offense has leaned so heavily on short passes, but that will not get the job done against Pittsburgh. If Brown is able to create a game-changing momentum-shifting play, the Ravens will have to match it. Playing catchup in Pittsburgh is not going to work. Big plays will have to be made; short dink and dunk passes won’t do it.
None of the above three are easy tasks, but all will be necessary in order to win on Sunday. The Ravens have all the motivation they need: the rivalry, the location, and the stakes. Not having Jimmy Smith puts the Ravens at a large disadvantage, but not an insurmountable one.