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Scouting Report, Week 5: Back to the basics

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the scouting report, a weekly column where Jake brings you a few thoughts on the Ravens upcoming opponent for the week, based on their last few games. He’ll run through what they’ve looked like recently, how he thinks that’ll translate to their matchup with Baltimore, and how he expects the Ravens to exploit some of what he saw.

With the Week 4 debacle now squarely in the rearview mirror, it’s time for the Ravens to do some soul searching and find out just who they are as a team. Are they a squad that only thrives when the competition is easy and the going is good, a-la the first two weeks? Does this mean they can’t knuckle up and get a huge win when they need it, which is the reality they’re facing on Sunday in Pittsburgh?

We’re probably going to find out over the next few weeks as they have two very big (albeit winnable) games starting with the Steelers on Sunday, and then against the Bengals in Baltimore the week after. But before we check out that one, let’s take this one game at a time, shall we?

Without further ado, your scouting report on the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers through four weeks:

Tipping the scales

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Mason Rudolph has the opportunity make his case to succeed Ben Roethlisberger for the remainder of 2019
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

When analyzing the numbers, Pittsburgh’s offense is incredibly unbalanced, with their passing efficiency leading the way and their rushing numbers looking pretty paltry. Maybe that starts with the quarterback change that took place in week 2.

If the Steelers had their way, Mason Rudolph probably wouldn’t have gotten his feet wet this season at all. There’s a reason for that, as he was a fairly raw third-round pick out of Oklahoma State just a year ago.

He hasn’t been perfect, but it’s hard to really kill his performance considering the circumstances. In fact, with his limited experience you can make the case that he’s actually done fairly well for himself - especially in comparison to other quarterbacks that Pittsburgh has drafted in behind Big Ben over the last several years.

On 81 passing dropbacks, he has a 67.6 completion rate on 515 yards, and thrown six touchdowns against two interceptions. While those are pretty solid numbers, advanced metrics don’t really seem to love what he’s done so far. Here’s the breakdown:

PFF has him at a 55.3 overall grade with a 54.1 in passing and only a 22% chance to crack 300 yards this week in term of fantasy projections. Football Outsiders currently has Pittsburgh’s passing offensive DVOA as 8.2% positive, good for 18th overall in the league

FO’s breakdown of the Steelers overall offense has them at 20th in the league, with their rushing outlook at a –19%, placing them at 26th of 32. Lead back James Conners’ rushing grade from PFF is currently a 60.7 and he’s averaging only 3.2 yards per clip – with Conner’s talent this is probably a reflection Pittsburgh’s poor run blocking efficiency, which currently sits at 28th in DVOA.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Conner is off to a bit of a slow start after a breakout 2018 season.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In a stark contrast to their rushing, their line ranks 2nd in pass blocking DVOA, and their ability to keep Rudolph clean has probably been a huge help in his solid start to the season. In order to really get back into the race, Mike Tomlin’s squad will need to balance things out on the attack, and frankly, this is the right week for them to do so.

Baltimore’s 29th ranked defensive DVOA mark is in part due to their +7.8% rushing DVOA, good for 28th in the league. Lack of pop up front and ability tackle once running backs get going have led to them being gashed for big plays which was on full display last Sunday when Nick Chubb romped all over them for 165 yards and three touchdowns.

For a franchise who prides themselves for being tough on D (especially up front), the Ravens start to the year on defense is completely unacceptable. They better hope that their new signings such as L.J. Fort, Josh Bynes, and Jeremiah Ledbetter will help them get things turned around, otherwise this could be another long day.

Essentially this matchup comes down to the battle of the turnaround: can Pittsburgh’s poor rushing offense get it going against Baltimore’s porous rush D? Or, will the vice versa happen? Looking at the numbers and some of the changes they’ve made, the Ravens do face a unique opportunity to change the narrative that they can’t stop teams on the ground.

They better hope they can otherwise this division has the potential to be blown wide open by Tuesday morning if Cleveland can’t get it done in San Francisco.

Ground it and pound it

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On the flipside, the Ravens offense really needs to get back to the fundamentals to help their overall team have success. Their numbers are quite frankly amazing, especially in comparison to what their fans are used to seeing – they sit at 3rd in overall DVOA, with a 6th ranked 32.9% passing efficiency grade, and 1st(!) in rushing efficiency with a 23.2% positive grade.

With their numbers so good at the moment, how the hell did they drop that game to Cleveland? In breaking the numbers down, it would appear they allowed a stat they’ve been pretty good at on average to drop back to the mean.

That would be time of possession. Here’s how things stack up in total for 2019 in comparison to the Cleveland loss:

  • For 2019 average, they’ve held onto the ball for 35:03 in games, while the opponents have had it for 24:57, which is pretty damn good.
  • Against the Browns, they were out possessed 30:17 to 29:43. That’s obviously very even, but a big time regression when measured against their average.

They’re also +1 in total turnover differential, but were –2 verse the Browns. Some of those turnovers were interceptions while chasing the scoreboard late, but a Mark Ingram fumble was very crucial in terms of how the game was flowing when it happened.

Frankly, those are two stats that offenses need to stay on top of when their defense is struggling, and the Ravens bungling them on offense is a primary reason why they couldn’t get the win at home. Moving forward though, the numbers suggest that if they get back to their fundamentals and emphasize these two aspects of the game, they could walk out of Pittsburgh with a much-needed win.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens-Minicamp
The big uglies will need to set the tone on the ground for the Ravens to control this game.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers defensive line is a far cry from the Steel Curtain you’re used to, as they currently rank 28th in total run-defense DVOA. They do in contrast have respectable passing numbers, with a ranking of 5th against the pass thanks largely to their 14 sacks on the season.

Essentially it boils down to this: The Steelers are again unbalanced on D with their 19th overall defensive efficiency ranking being dragged down heavily by their porous run D. With the Ravens having the most efficient rushing offense in the league, they need to exploit Pittsburgh’s weakness with their biggest strength, and hammer the ball down the field.

In doing so, they’ll also improve time of possession and limit their chances of turning the ball over. While this strategy probably sounds pretty simple, it’s something I’m again suggesting that Baltimore employ because it works, and because the numbers bear out that when they do employ it, they’re playing to their peak potential.

Also, it’s worth noting that it’s a big help to limit the exposure the Ravens defense is seeing, especially in comparison to last week when they lost the T.O.P. battle to the Browns. Ultimately, the Ravens need to get back to the basics to win this week, and to turn around what was a once promising season.

We’re going to find out a lot about this team on Sunday, and hopefully the numbers will skew in a more positive direction to make this a more positive scouting report when previewing the Bengals. See you guys then, and thanks for reading.