1. Polamalu out of the box: It is a mystery as to how the Ravens had such a hard time identifying a player who wears a mountain of hair under his helmet. The Steeler great has confounded the Baltimore offense just as recently as in Week 13 of the season.
Everyone remembers his strip/sack play of Joe Flacco in Baltimore. But during the regular season game in Pittsburgh, Polamalu lined up to blitz off-tackle numerous times, including a rush that came directly in Flacco’s sightline. Yet in every instance, the plan has been to throw the ball before Polamalu can get home.
Clearly, the offense needs a more effective plan to deal with this quiet playmaker.
Way back when, during the 2006 season, Brian Billick’s plan was to motion a receiver to draw man coverage against Polamalu. On one memorable play in Pittsburgh, receiver Demetrius Williams motioned from right to left of the formation, planted in the slot and ran an out-and-up past Polamalu for the score.
Perhaps offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should take some notes from that game tape and implement the same strategy. When Polamalu is hovering around the box, a receiver or tight end Todd Heap should flex out and draw him out.
If he doesn’t move, the Ravens will still have a workable matchup to exploit. However, in motioning a receiver, it will usually be Polamalu who has to move to cover, given that he is a safety.
The key to executing this strategy will be the use of more single back, three-receiver combinations. Those open formations invite the blitz off the edge, yet having an extra receiver to move across the formation could keep a blitzing player honest.
Given that the Steeler safety may not even be at full strength, the Ravens may be able to exploit his ability to plant and backpedal like a corner would. If he is not moving well, he may struggle to keep up with whoever he has to trail.
2. Heap in motion: The loss of Heap in the last matchup between these two teams was a devastating blow on two different levels. He was sorely missed as a blocker to help out against the blitz. Moreover, he was missed as a reliable pass-catching target for Flacco to turn to.
One play that sticks out that Heap could have made was the drop that rookie tight end Ed Dickson had on one of the first drives of the game. Dickson ran a delay route in which he circled from the backfield, and the Pittsburgh linebackers lost him in space. He was wide open but unable to make a play which could have been pivotal.
Heap has the versatility to line up everywhere, including on or off the line, and out of the backfield. Cameron should look to move Heap as often as possible to create mismatches. None of the Pittsburgh linebackers have the ability to cover Heap one-on-one.
The approach that the Ravens take with their passing attack could be dictated by how the Steelers defend Heap. Pittsburgh may stick to more zone in light of how Kansas City’s single coverage was exposed. If that happens, Heap can still be dangerous, but he’ll need to find the soft spots in the zone.
3. Checks and Balances: It appears that the training wheels are being weaned off of Flacco. Against the Chiefs, he was given more freedom to throw the ball. Now, the next step is to give Flacco more autonomy against Pittsburgh to audible and make adjustments at the line-of-scrimmage.
The Ravens struggled to account for the Pittsburgh blitz in the last matchup. A few of the plays that the Steelers made behind the line could have easily been avoided had Flacco made an audible or a quick check to a hot receiver.
Regardless, he has to have full control of things in this divisional matchup. That means being able to shift the protection if needed to properly pick up the blitz, change a route combination or change from run to pass or vice versa, depending on the look the Steelers give.
1. Drop Big Ben: Being able to bring down a quarterback should not be a major key to a defense having success. After all, quarterbacks should be easy to take down in the open field. However, Ben Roethlisberger is a different breed. He is a 260-pound linebacker playing quarterback. He shakes off defenders and keeps plays alive.
The Ravens have dealt with this predicament many times. Big Ben will make his share of plays, but the key for the Ravens is preventing him from wiggling free in crucial situations, such as third down or in the red zone.
And if the Ravens do blitz Roethlisberger, they must maintain their tackling technique. Roethlisberger is outstanding at hesitating or juking a defender to buy time to heave the ball downfield.
Somehow the defenders must find a way to keep the playmaking quarterback from breaking too many tackles.
2. Keep the safeties back: In their last two meetings with Pittsburgh, the Baltimore defense has done a much better job of preventing the big air strike from occurring. The coverage has been tighter downfield, forcing the Pittsburgh quarterbacks to throw the ball underneath.
The difference has been the play of the safeties, who have been able to help the corners over the top.
The Ravens should stick to the same strategy, keeping the safeties back to defend the deep ball. If the safeties draw more coverage responsibilities, the front seven has to be able to defend the run without help – which is a task they should be able to handle.
3. Deliver the finishing blow: In a game of this magnitude, third down efficiency will be critical. Whenever the Steelers have mounted their comebacks, they have been outstanding at preserving drives by hitting on key plays. This includes the times that Roethlisberger is able to escape the pocket and throw the ball away to live another down, just as he did against Terrell Suggs inside of the red zone in Baltimore last month.
The Steelers have a knack for digging themselves out of a hole by hitting on a big pass or a critical third down conversion. It goes back to Roethlisberger and his refusal to lose. He is simply dynamic when the game is on the line.
The time for this defense to close off the Steelers could come again, and if it does, this defense needs to find a way to make a game-preserving play. The Ravens have gotten better at closing since losing to Pittsburgh.
However, the real test will be against Roethlisberger and the Steelers, as they have consistently found ways to register enough points at the end to win the scoreboard battle.
One-on-one Matchup to Watch
Lardarius Webb versus Mike Wallace: Wallace has turned in a banner season as the sizzling replacement for former Steeler Santonio Holmes. Wallace is not as tough on inside routes as Holmes was, but he is equally impressive in the open field, and he is faster on deep routes. In fact, his speed may only be matched be DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, Webb has been one of the few corners who has been able to keep up with Wallace one-on-one. He will attempt to keep up with Wallace yet again, in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.