1. Pass the ball on early downs: Winning the down-and-distance battle against the men of steel is absolutely critical. For an offense, not being on schedule toward third down conversions means being in danger against an opportunistic defense. The Steelers absolutely thrive in obvious passing situations.
For the Ravens, gaining yardage on first and second down is a must. However, they won’t be able to consistently gain yardage through the running game, as the Steelers are the best early down run defense in the league.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will need to call a creative mix of first down and second down pass plays to gain yards in small chunks, working towards achievable third down conversion situations. Against the Steelers, that would equate to gaining at least five yards between first and second down. Facing third-and-five or longer on a consistent basis could spell trouble for quarterback Joe Flacco and the rest of the pass offense.
2. Protect the ball: Turnovers seem to be a constant when the Ravens meet the Steelers. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the Steelers have consistently won that battle. It is time for the Ravens to turn that margin around today.
This will be a game in which giving up on plays to fight another down is not the worst decision. Taking sacks, throwing incompletions, and going down to the ground are better options than a free possession. It’s better to cut your losses against defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s opportunistic unit.
The offense has to play intelligently and understand that they will have a tough time generating positive plays. They will give up some losses, and they will be stopped in other instances. Their mind set has to be that it’s okay, as long as they don’t give the ball up, creating a short field for the Pittsburgh offense.
3. Identify the hot read: One key ingredient that is clearly missing from the offense has been the underneath passing game. The backs have not been involved much as pass catchers. Defenses have targeted tailback Ray Rice and he has not been an option as an outlet receiver for Flacco to turn to.
However, against a Pittsburgh defense that uses their linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage, the backs and tight ends must be the hot targets for Flacco to rely on. There should be a design to defeat that Pittsburgh blitz by systematically finding the spaces that defenders vacate.
One of the best ways to create gains would be to use a combination of quick screens and chip routes. The Ravens could use their extra blockers to get an initial hit on a blitzer, and then have them leak out to the vacated spots to catch the ball. Not only would these plays slow down the Pittsburgh pass rush, but Flacco would also have targets to dump the ball to when he is hurried.
Flacco has to be sharp and make adjustments at the line. He will also need to be flexible and not make all of his decisions based on his pre-snap reads. The Steelers will disguise and change post-snap. If Flacco predetermines all of his decisions, he will get baited and turn the ball over.
1. Load up against the run: It has gotten to the point where the Ravens may need to keep a safety in the box to help against the run. It is normal practice for Baltimore to stop the run using just their front seven, but that simply has not worked.
Against Pittsburgh, loading the box may be especially crucial on early downs. The Steelers have developed the mentality of being a run-first team, especially in the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They will pound the ball, and keep pounding it because they know they won’t have to go away from it.
That is why the Ravens have to take away the Pittsburgh rush attack by any means necessary. That also means that the line rotation will be critical against the Steelers.
The Ravens could be better served using more five-man fronts so they can control the gaps tighter and force the ball to go outside. Overall, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison may need to use as many as four defensive tackles at any given time to control the line.
2. Bring the heat: So far this season, the Ravens have relied more on their three and four-man rushes to break down the pocket in third-and-long situations. The results have been mixed. At times they have been able get pressure and in other instances they have given the quarterback way too much time.
They have yet to pay a big price for giving the quarterback enough time to find an open receiver. After all, coverage on the backend has been dynamite despite the inconsistent rush. However, a veteran like Charlie Batch will find the openings if he’s protected.
At the same time, Batch is not nearly as mobile as players like Mark Sanchez and Seneca Wallace. He will not leave the pocket. He is also working behind a line that has traditionally struggled to pick up the blitz.
The Ravens should be more aggressive using the blitz against the Steelers. This is a game that calls for some deceptive overload looks in which the Pittsburgh tackles and extra blockers are tested. Overall, the defense has to find a way to collapse the pocket.
3. Liming the YAC: One disturbing trend that has taken place during this hellish rivalry is how often the Pittsburgh receivers have made big plays after the catch. Receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes have been outstanding at turning short routes into home run hitters.
This is due to a combination of factors.
First, those receivers have never been intimidated by the Baltimore defense. Unlike some other receivers from other teams, they look for contact and bounce off of it to keep a play alive.
Second, the defensive backs have been awful tacklers in these situations. Either they have lost their technique at the point of impact, or they focused too much on stripping the ball in the open field as opposed to finding a way to bring down the ball-carrier.
Holmes may be gone, but his replacement, Mike Wallace, will present some of the same challenges.
The back end has to tackle a lot better and prevent the Steelers from gaining extra yardage in the open field.
One-on-one Matchup to Watch
Lardarius Webb versus Hines Ward: For years, Ward has been a thorn in the Ravens’ side. He is a tough, physical and relentless player who finds a way to get open. A rotation of corners will likely face Ward, but Webb is the most physical corner the Ravens have. Coming off of the ACL injury, it will be a challenge for Webb to stay with Ward as he accelerates in and out of his breaks. It will be interesting to see if he can keep pace.