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Ravens News 9/27: Red zone success, strength on strength in Week 4 and more

NFL: Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Za’Darius Smith Is Making an Early Statement in Contract Year - Clifton Brown

Smith doesn’t deny he has extra motivation, playing the final year of his four-year contract. Since joining the Ravens in 2015 as a fourth-round pick, Smith has heard constant comparisons between himself and Pernell McPhee, the former Ravens linebacker now with the Redskins, who cashed in during 2015 free agency by signing a four-year, reported $38.5 million contract with the Bears.

Smith knows having his best season will raise his free agent market value, whether he re-signs with the Ravens or moves on.

“It’s a contract year,” Smith said. “A lot of people talk about following in the footsteps of Pernell. I’m going out there to try to do the best I can.”

Since training camp began, coaches and teammates have noticed a different Smith. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said Smith had his best training camp ever. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Smith has become a more complete player.

Smith has been more than just a force off the edge. Harbaugh also commended him for the job he’s done with his inside pass rush, which is something the Ravens have been looking for from Smith, and how he’s held up against the run while inside.

Three of Za’Darius’ 12 career sacks have come against Week 4 opponent Pittsburgh. Smith could definitely add to this total if tackle Marcus Gilbert misses another game due to injury.

Why Ravens are sizzling in red zone at historic pace - Jamison Hensley

Teams can’t lock onto one player when Baltimore gets inside the 20-yard line. Seven players have scored red-zone touchdowns for the Ravens in the first three games. That’s more than the combined number of players who’ve scored inside the 20 for the Cardinals, Packers, Cowboys and Jets.

The Ravens believe they can continue this high level of production because tight end Hayden Hurst (this year’s top pick) hasn’t played because of a stress fracture in his foot and wide receiver Michael Crabtree (their best red-zone target) has scored only one touchdown.

”The fact that [Crabtree is] still going to be a threat down there... Teams know that, so they’re going to have to cover him,” Harbaugh said. “If they don’t, he’s going to score. That’s a big plus. Marty [Mornhinweg, offensive coordinator] and [senior offensive assistant] Craig Ver Steeg and all those coaches have done a great job of scheme in the red zone, and like you said, spreading the ball out, keeping people off balance, running past, and there are some really good ideas down there.”

Furthermore, the offensive line has seemingly blocked much better close to the goal-line. Coordinator Mornhinweg deserves much of the credit as well, he has been deceptive in the red-zone by using Lamar Jackson as a decoy and deploying both running backs with ‘22’ personnel.

Steelers open as 3-point favorites over Ravens in Week 4 - Simon Chester

An initial Over/Under of 51 points reflects the Steelers’ inability to stop anyone from scoring just as much as it relates to their abilities on offense. Once traditionally low-scoring encounters, games between these two AFC North rivals have seen a lot of points more recently, with two of their last three games easily exceeding this opening totals position. That being said, no Steelers/Ravens game has ever opened with such a high total.

The Steelers currently hold a 27-21 advantage over Baltimore dating back to 1996, including four playoff games, and they’ve won their last three in a row over the Ravens.

Pittsburgh’s defense currently ranks 29th in yards allowed and 28th in scoring allowed but is tied for second most with 11 sacks.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: 4 stats to know before Week 4 matchup - Aaron Kasinitz

The Ravens lead the NFL in total defense; the Steelers rank 2nd in total offense

It’ll represent a matchup of strengths when Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense lineup across from the Ravens’ defense. Baltimore hopes Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (knee) returns Sunday after missing last week’s win, and Pittsburgh will likely continue playing without running Le’Veon Bell. No matter. The Ravens’ D and the Steelers’ O are two of the best units the NFL has to offer.

Why it matters Sunday

Since the start of the 2011 regular season, the Ravens are 9-1 against the Steelers when they hold their division foe to 20 points or fewer. In that same span, Baltimore is 0-5 when allowing Pittsburgh to pile up more than 20 points. So recent history tells us the Ravens will struggle to win in a shootout. They’re going to need their stout defense to stymie the Steelers to earn a valuable triumph at Heinz Field.

The Steelers have scored more than 19 points in 14 consecutive games. Their two game average against the Ravens last season was 32.5.