When the Baltimore Ravens kick things off with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, it will cap off a remarkable December run into the postseason for the Ravens, who missed out on the playoffs a year ago.
Their sixth trip to the playoffs in seven years has been unlike previous playoff trips. During the 2012 Super Bowl run, the Ravens were far from the identity of their first Super Bowl title in 2000. In 2012, defense was a weak point on the team, and the hot hand of quarterback Joe Flacco was what carried the team to a title despite some poor defensive efforts throughout the 2012 season.
This time in the playoffs? It is the defense that has carried the team in many games. Flacco had a career season and running back Justin Forsett bursted on the scene with 1,266 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, but this team simply would not be where it is now without stellar play on many occasions by the defense.
Ranking 23rd in the NFL with 249 passing yards allowed per game, the Baltimore secondary has never been mistaken for anything more than a rather generous unit. Granted, the secondary stepped up in December, and cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Rashaan Melvin are settling in as a pretty reliable starting duo.
But how the Ravens made their mark during the regular season was up front, where the argument could be made that defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ front seven was the best in the NFL during the regular season.
Finishing tied for the second-most sacks in the NFL with 49 and allowing just 88.3 rushing yards per game, Baltimore’s stout defensive front could be the deciding factor in the team’s playoff fate.
Offensively the Ravens have moved the ball on Pittsburgh in 2014. They weren’t as opportunistic as they might like but they were good enough to win. The mystery in tonight’s game lies in the performance of the secondary and if they fail can the front seven keep the Ravens in the game?
With star running back Le’Veon Bell out for the Steelers in this Wild Card affair, all signs point to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger carving up the Ravens’ defensive back end as he did in early November when he passed for six touchdowns.
Part of Roethlisberger’s success can be attributed to an overall poor game by the defense and its inability to move the Steelers big gunslinger off his mark and rush his throws. In Week 2 when the Ravens steamrolled the Steelers 26-6, Roethlisberger had zero touchdown passes, an interception and completed less than 60 percent of his passes. A major reason for his struggles was a dominant performance by the front seven which included two sacks by outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil.
If the Ravens are unable to faze Roethlisberger, good luck winning a playoff game this year.
That is where the problem lies: can the Ravens get to Roethlisberger with such an improved offensive line protecting him?
In previous years, offensive lines in Pittsburgh were inconsistent lineups with oft-injured or struggling players. This year, offensive line coach Mike Munchak has the young unit playing extremely well with no inherent weak spot, including improved play from both starting tackles.
Could Pittsburgh’s starting offensive line – one that is much, much better than what the Ravens faced in Week 2 this season – be the difference maker on Saturday and be able to fend off such an intimidating pass rush?
It is a good bet to think that Pittsburgh’s offensive line will play well, and while it may not dominate Baltimore’s front seven, simply tempering the impact of the likes of Dumervil, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee and C.J. Mosley may be enough.
Let’s take a look at how the Steelers starting line has been excelling in recent weeks.
While the line has looked good in run blocking, Bell’s absence makes it hard to predict how much the Steelers can rely on the run game, so we’ll focus on pass protection.
One of Pittsburgh’s best assets is the communication between the linemen to pick up players. Munchak is one of the best in the business at teaching linemen and their progression has been noticeable from week to week.
Against Cincinnati, planned movement by the Bengals to execute their pass rush attacks did not fool the Steelers.
One player who has improved his awareness this season is right tackle Marcus Gilbert.
He offers the initial block on the left end, who is attacking the inside.
A stunt by the defensive line sends the end crashing inside with defensive tackle Domata Peko maneuvering around the outside. Gilbert and right guard David DeCastro seal off the end as center Maurkice Pouncey hands off Peko.
At this point in the play, Gilbert must have the awareness to pick up Peko on the outside, while Pouncey and DeCastro must work together to seal off the end Carlos Dunlap on the inside.
That is just the case as the three execute the pass rush pickup to perfection.
Left guard Ramon Foster also picks up his man; left tackle Kelvin Beachum is the odd man out, however the rest of the line’s success allows Roethlisberger to get the pass off in time.
While a good example of the linemen’s ability to work in unison, viewing success against a more Baltimore-like defense is a better idea.
No front seven the Steelers have faced this season is more like Baltimore’s than Kansas City’s, the Week 16 opponent for Pittsburgh.
Not only do the Chiefs run a 3-4 defense, but they also have two potent pass rushers at outside linebacker: Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.
Their ability to rush the passer is quite similar to that of Dumervil and Suggs.
Much like Dumervil and Suggs’ tendencies, Kansas City’s linebacker duo often lined up quite wide.
As mentioned before, Gilbert is much improved this season, but Beachum has been even better.
At just 6’3, Beachum is short by NFL standards for left tackles, but his desirable technique more than makes up for the size deficiency.
Facing Hali one-on-one on the outside, Beachum lets Hali come to him, sinking his backside in the process to gain proper form and positioning.
This gives Beachum all of the leverage he could need, which counters Hali’s immense strength.
Hali is similar to Suggs as a rusher: not the fastest of edge players but strong and successful with hand usage.
With the technique in his favor, Beachum is able to absorb the contact and deliver a punch to Hali, holding him off and helping to provide a clean pocket for Roethlisberger.
This was a fairly traditional rush; nothing fancy.
Where Baltimore has had success this season and where Pees will likely try to have success again on Saturday night is by using odd setups and confusing formations to throw off the offensive line.
This comes in any form, such as standing up linebackers Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw and having them rush from the interior, or having Mosley rush from the edge.
But the Steelers saw this against the Chiefs and were not in too much danger.
A pre-snap look by the Chiefs defense offers Houston out wide, Hali in close, and five out of the seven box defenders standing up.
Houston retreats in coverage and a defender picks up tight end Heath Miller over the middle, leaving five Chiefs defenders blitzing.
Hali and Beachum are one-on-one, as is Foster with his man. A three man stack in the vicinity of Pouncey and DeCastro could throw things off, and Gilbert must shift over to his left to aid the interior linemen.
Beachum and Foster maintain their men, while Pouncey, DeCastro and Gilbert each successfully pick up one of the three defenders blitzing up the middle.
After each of the five linemen engage with a defender, the end result is a beautiful, clean, worry-free pocket for Roethlisberger.
This Steelers offensive line simply is not one that the Ravens have faced this season; it is much improved from the first two matchups against Baltimore.
In December, the youth of the line seemed to finally wear off, as all five linemen seem to have settled in at their respective positions.
It is no secret that the Steelers will rely heavily on the arm of Roethlisberger against Baltimore. The Ravens have the dominant pass rush needed to succeed in the playoffs, but can it succeed on the road against such an improved opposing unit?
The battle in the trenches will certainly be a fun one to watch, and it could be the matchup that plays the biggest role in the outcome of Saturday’s showdown.