Battle Plans: Ravens versus Steelers
1. Re-Setting the Edge: Last week’s performance against the Eagles and Ryan Mathews came at about as bad of a time as you can imagine. Philadelphia exposed a weak point of the Ravens’ run defense (off tackle) that laid dormant for most of the season, but it came unhinged, as the Eagles got to the perimeter consistently. The OLBs struggled to set the edge, and the ILBs (Zach Orr especially) had a hard time getting off of blocks to chase from sideline-to-sideline. The Philadelphia offensive line consistently got to the second level – which most lines haven’t been able to do against the Ravens’ interior defensive front.
Enter the Steelers…
Arguably the best perimeter rush offense in the league, Pittsburgh runs an assortment of counters, sweeps, and designed traps to spring Le’Veon Bell loose. What makes these plays so difficult to defend is that the linemen and Bell press the middle just enough to get backers caught in a wash, only to bounce it outside.
The Ravens did a nice job of defending Pittsburgh’s perimeter rush attempts in their first matchup because they maintained their gap integrity. They were also able to get fast penetration into the backfield before Bell got going.
The front is going to have to refrain from flowing too hard inside in order to protect the edges. If the Ravens are able to hold Bell down again, it’s going to mean Albert McClellan and Terrell Suggs are able to consistently set the edge and force Bell to shuffle his feet and cut inside.
2. Early-Down Passing Strike: The Ravens’ ability to stuff Bell repeatedly on first and second down played the pivotal part in turning the Steelers into a one-dimensional offense. Baltimore controlled the action on third down, consistently forcing Big Ben into longer conversion situations. He was unable to overcome the yardage gap.
One has to think with a healthier Roethlisberger, offensive coordinator Todd Haley won’t call so many run, run, pass sequences. Since the Miami game, the Ravens’ D has been hit by some well-timed play-action plays in early-down situations. If the backers are too teed up to atone for last week’s run defense shortcomings by slanting and crashing too aggressively to take on Bell, they’ll be ripe for the picking.
Overall, the defense needs to be prepared for a more aggressive passing assault on first down from the Steelers when they are in their base formations – even the possibility of a no-huddle attack like New England ran. And once the backers start to back off and play off the line to defend the pass, that’ll open the door for more draws and delays – which is another staple run play to get Bell going in traditional passing situations.
3. Moving Defenders Out of Position: Along with hard run-action and play-action fakes, the defense is going to need to stay disciplined and prepared for pump fakes from Roethlisberger. In fact, the two-time Super Bowl winner gained momentum in the second half of the first game primarily because he was able to use pump action to draw defenders out of position and open up windows in the seams.
Haley calls a lot of double-move plays to showcase Roethlisberger’s ball-handling skills and take advantage of a defense’s over-aggressiveness to defend Bell and Antonio Brown. The killer B’s connection is dangerous enough to influence defenders as decoys on underneath routes and fake screens, only setting up opportunities for secondary targets downfield.
The defense can’t over-pursue when they chase after Brown and Bell, and they need to be aware of a second move off of an initial fake.
1. Tracking Davis: Sean Davis is one of the many moving parts that have spurred the sudden rise of the Pittsburgh defense. Since Baltimore last faced the Steelers, the rookie safety has taken on a more prominent role as a rover, much like former Raven tormentor Troy Polamalu.
Davis moves around before the snap, displaying the versatility to line up in the slot, in the box as an extra LB, or at times in the deeper halves of the field. At this point in his young career, Davis is being used more as a box player to crash and split gaps against the run. But he also has the range to move sideline-to-sideline or cover tight ends and backs one-on-one.
Finding Davis before the snap and making sure his aggressiveness is accounted for has to be a priority for Flacco. In particular, Flacco has to be aware of Davis in early down situations when he can flow into the box as a run blitzer. When Davis flashes, Flacco needs to call his run audibles away from his side, and he needs to control the snap count so the safety isn’t able to slide in unaccounted for before the snap.
In coverage, the former Maryland Terrapin has the athleticism to hold up in short yardage coverage, but motioning to his side and challenging him further downfield is another way to attack Davis before he attacks first.
2. Pre-Snap Movement and Different Rush Points: The Pittsburgh pass rush took control in their last matchup against the Ravens, and they weren’t even at full strength. Bud Dupree returned from injured reserve nearly two weeks after the November 6 matchup so the Steelers front seven now packs a bigger punch. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has all of his pieces in place to play a more organized chaos brand of defense.
Over the past few weeks, the Pittsburgh linebackers have been active in an assortment of blitz looks, whether it’s showing double-barrel A-gap pressures or overloads from the edges. In these instances, the rushers will try to force the offensive line to slide their protections and rush from the opposite direction. The ageless James Harrison in particular is notorious for showing a static stance before the snap, only to come crashing downhill from the C-gap, or he’ll stunt inside the A-gap.
Like New England did a couple of weeks ago, the Steelers will also show blitz and bail out after the snap. Again, their main objective is to distort the protection scheme, but the Pittsburgh backers are also active as drop defenders who will take away passing windows.
Flacco and his offensive line need to be on the same page all evening to handle these looks. The best way to handle the LB drops in coverage is to throw the ball beyond the depth of where the backers drop, into the deep middle or outside layers. Throwing short is playing right into their hands, where the sight lines are cut off.
3. Double Tight End Protections: Harrison was able to have his way against rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley in the first matchup – everyone knows that. Since that game, Stanley has been playing at an elite level, but so has Harrison. The Steelers maximize the veteran enforcer’s snaps, and he continues to wreak havoc, especially in obvious passing situations.
The best thing the Ravens have going for them is that they have their full complement of tight ends, which was not the case the first time these two foes squared off. Nick Boyle has made his presence felt as a blocking TE and pass blocker, and Crockett Gilmore could also get back into the mix. Along with Darren Waller (who is becoming a bigger factor in the passing game), this is a group that needs to be featured in multiple big TE packages to help neutralize Harrison’s pass rush and create matchup problems in the passing game, especially in early-down situations.
Using more two and three-tight looks is another way for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to slow down Pittsburgh’s blitzes, and create more chip and quick-screen opportunities to hit them when they do come.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Pouncey was essentially knocked out of the first contest with a finger injury, but he’s back to form, anchoring one of the best run-blocking units in the game. Like Jason Kelce (who gave Williams fits last week), Pouncey has the athleticism to hit and slide to the second level with ease. Williams will need to win the power game and get a push against the best center in football to have a chance.