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The Dossier, Week 12(?): The COVID Cup

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Mitchell Layton-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to “The Dossier” a weekly look across the aisle at the Ravens’ opponents, and how they stack up on paper. This Week 12 edition features a Ravens team that’s ravaged by COVID vs. a 10-0 Steelers squad who seem to see themselves as the victim in all of this.

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The Matchup: Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Setting: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh , Pennsylvania

The Forecast: Morning clouds will give way to afternoon sunshine. High 41F. Winds W at 10 to 20 mph.

The Stakes: The Steelers look to continue their roll to 11-0, while Baltimore hopes they can stay afloat in the AFC playoff picture.

The Spread: The Steelers are currently a –10 point home favorite.

Well here we are, time to finally get this show on the road and watch the 6-4 Ravens travel up to Pittsburgh to face the 10-0 Steelers. Or is it? Who knows, maybe this game will get delayed again, and we’ll see the entire city of Pittsburgh lose their collective minds.

This has without question been one of the most bizarre weeks in Baltimore Ravens history, which makes it almost fitting that in incredibly bizarre fashion, this game has been bumped up to a 3:40 p.m. timeslot to accommodate a tree lighting ceremony. Go figure, but there isn’t really any time to cry over the spilled milk of it all. As Wayne Gretzky once inspired Michael Scott, Jocko Willink did for John Harbaugh, and if there were ever a time to break out a speech like this, it would be this week:

Regardless of whatever motivation tactics are employed or not, there’s no denying the Ravens enter this game in a tough spot, while the Steelers are possibly at the height of their powers. It’ll take a lot more than a nice speech to get Baltimore to 7-4 on Wednesday, so let’s a take at how, shall we?


The Offense

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t much you can say about a Steelers offense that hasn’t already been said up to this point, and that’s especially the case after the Ravens have seen them once already this season. In that matchup, Baltimore’s defense actually did a solid job, but were victimized in the second half by Ben Roethlisberger’s quick passing, and the abilities of a typically strong receiving corps around him. While they were good in the second half of that game and have been strong since, looking at the Steelers offensive DVOA rating might make you suspicious as to either the veracity of the ratings, or whether Pittsburgh is in fact undefeated at this point.

They’re currently 17th in total offensive DVOA, aggregated by a 14th rated passing offense, and a staggeringly low 29th ranked rushing attack via that metric. It all seems to check out when looking at their offensive roster on PFF, and starting with their offensive line. Alejandro Villanueva grades out as their best starter with a 75.4 grade, which is solid but unspectacular. Where they’re really making their hay though is in the passing game as Villanueva has a very respectable 79.1 pass pro grade, while starting guard David Decastro grades out at an 84.9, while rotating guards Matt Feiler and Kevin Dotson pass protect at a PFF rating of 73.4 and 88.7, respectively.

It’s all very solid, and it works for what they like to do on that side of the ball. While Pittsburgh was once known as a ground and pound running team led by bruisers like Jerome Bettis, in 2020 they’ve leaned on their strengths. These are (as touched on) good pass protection that allows Roethlisberger to get the ball out quickly to targets that are both schemed open perfectly quite often, and also able to win in one-on-one situations just when the scenario calls for it.

An encapsulation of what they enjoy doing on offense is summed up by the below clip via ESPN’s Matt Bowen:

Plenty of short options are available for Ben to go to underneath, which he does quite often as we saw in the first matchup between these two teams. But as we also saw, he’s able to push it deep when necessary as well, often to rookie Chase Claypool who’s a matchup nightmare on the outside with his freakish measurables and nose for the ball. Bowen goes onto make a few points about how they utilize Claypool and a few of their other deep shot options, and the long term prospects of that type of strategy:

While that may be music to Ravens fans ears (at least those who hope to see the Steelers falter), in this game specifically, they project to be just fine. This is especially true with the absence of Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee, and Calais Campbell who are obvious difference makers in the front seven for Baltimore. In other words, while their offense isn’t quite as dominant as a typical 10-win team you might see, there’s no reason they can’t put up points on Wednesday.


The Defense

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

It feels somewhat strange and hollow even approaching this matchup of Robert Griffin III and the replacements vs. Pittsburgh’s stout defense in any kind of analytical fashion, but here goes: It doesn’t look great (for the Ravens, that is). Baltimore’s offense is down their starting quarterback, their most productive receiver of the last several weeks (Willie Snead IV), and three of their offensive lineman who have seen significant playing time recently (Will Holden, Patrick Mekari, Matt Skura) and they have to face a Pittsburgh defense that is No. 1 in total DVOA.

If you ask some people though, the potential last minute return of their top two running backs could prove to make a massive difference:

It’s pretty ridiculous to insinuate that two running backs will make all that much of a difference for a Ravens offense that’s down half their starters and will have barely practiced prior to this matchup, but as we’re seeing from many people both within the media and outside of it, this situation is bringing a lot of the stupidity of sports to the forefront. It doesn’t matter anyways, as Ingram and Dobbins were both ruled out on Wednesday morning.

As far as the passing game, it’s very difficult to know what we should expect from Griffin, especially with the absences along the offensive line and the reassuring presence of Snead. Pittsburgh’s defense is No. 1 in passing DVOA (is that any good?) facing a Baltimore offense that was already 22nd in pass DVOA before they lost half their starters for this game. As much as I’d like to believe a miracle can be pulled off here, it’s really hard to picture, and unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot else to say than that.


The Verdict

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

I wish I could sit here and sell you on X number of reasons why I think the Ravens have any chance at all here. The numbers didn’t favor them (and I was likely to pick against them) before this COVID outbreak wiped out half of their roster. Now, with a group of unknowns at many positions, especially on offense, my optimism hasn’t exactly grown since.

While it would be a Baltimore sports story of a lifetime if the RG3 led Ravens replacement team went into Pittsburgh with virtually no practice under their belt and took down the 10-0 Steelers, it seems more like a fairy tale at this point than something rooted in a reality that could take place. I’ll save my energy in believing something miraculous could happen for the upcoming slate of Christmas movies I’ll be binging. For now, it’s a much harsher scenario.

Jake’s Official Prediction: Steelers 34, Ravens 16