Sugar is the Key Ingredient
The last time these two foes met, the Ravens began to make long-term changes to their offensive attack. They went with more open shotgun sets, ran the ball from those formations, and even broke out their “sugar” huddle to quicken the pace in the second half. When the Ravens were in hurry-up mode, they had success moving the football and wearing out a Pittsburgh front that lacks the reliable front line rush they’ve had in years past.
In the rematch, Baltimore needs to establish their up-tempo attack from the beginning stages of the game. Despite the improvements that Pittsburgh has made on defense, they still can’t get to the quarterback, especially in conventional pass rush situations.
On the other side, Joe Flacco is coming off of his best passing performance in a while and looked comfortable on quick, rhythm throws against the Jets. Overall, he was efficient and decisive with his reads. The coaches need to keep giving Flacco chances to dictate the pace of the offense and stick with the no-huddle tonight.
Big Play Possibilities
Two of Flacco’s completions to Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith totaled 126 yards, and those long strikes brought back the big play in a big way. Up until that point, the Ravens hadn’t executed a deep strike since they played Buffalo. The timing couldn’t be better against a Pittsburgh defense that has given up 10 pass plays over 40 yards or more.
In the last two weeks, the Steelers have been also been burned badly by Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon—the top two home run threats in the league. And nearly four weeks ago, they were obliterated by Tom Brady.
There are a couple of factors for the Steelers’ struggles to contain the big play. One, cornerback Ike Taylor has gone from shutdown corner to a weekly whipping boy. Teams have reveled in the one-on-one opportunities he’s presented, and it’s clear that his speed and ball skills have completely eroded. Two, safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu have guessed badly on play-fakes and they lack the recovery speed they once had on the back end.
All in all, Flacco should have his chances downfield. The key will be to generate enough of a running game to keep the play-action threat alive.
Don’t Run and Hide
The Ravens’ abysmal rush offense hit its apex last Sunday, when the team broke out the wildcat to gain yards on the ground. The strategy had its bright spots and helped the Ravens stay balanced against a tough New York front seven. However, it was a largely overused formula that quickly became predictable.
Against Pittsburgh, the Ravens may actually have opportunities to run out of conventional sets. The Steelers have certainly gotten better against the run. But this is still a front seven that can be pushed around and the linebackers and defensive backs are vulnerable at the second level.
The Ravens showed some promise with their combination blocks in their last two games. They’ve been able to get blockers to the second level, and that’s led to more gains beyond four yards. They’ll need to use a coordinated blocking scheme to get to backers Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams.
The evolution of the Pittsburgh passing game has gone from a deep ball offense to a quick-hitting strike force. Granted, the Steelers still take their shots downfield. However, they have certainly dialed things back and rely more on Ben Roethlisberger’s precision and timing to hit his receivers in stride. He gets the ball to his playmakers—all of whom are devastating in the open field.
The key to slowing down Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery starts at the line. In particular, Brown is simply unreal with his footwork at the top of his routes. If he’s given a free release, it is almost impossible for cornerbacks to keep up.
The Baltimore defensive backs must get their hands on the receivers and try to stymie their releases. They cannot get into a foot race or they’ll get burned. If the corners can affect the timing of the pass routes, that should force Big Ben to hold the ball longer, and open up opportunities for sacks and pressures.
Overpursue and You’re Through
The Ravens looked much better against the run last Sunday, but the unit still gets caught in a wash when they pursue too hard down the line. Runners have been able to spring free through the backside, and this is typically an area that the Baltimore backers lock down.
Against rookie runner Le’Veon Bell, the edge defenders need to be much more disciplined when they work their way down the line. Bell is a patient runner and he’ll take advantage of any mistakes the front makes. They need to stay maintain their gap integrity all night long.
Time of Possession Chess Match
On at least two of the Steelers’ field goal scoring drives in the first matchup, they held the ball for nearly 10 minutes a possession. The Baltimore defense simply couldn’t prevent the Steelers from converting the key offensive plays they needed to control the game.
The defense needs to play more aggressively and force the issue as opposed to sitting back and letting the Steelers bleed the clock. When it comes to third down especially, the blitz looks should be ratcheted up a few notches, and they’ll need to find a way to collapse the pocket.
One-on-One Battle of the Week
Jason Worilds versus Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher
Since taking over as a starter at the left outside linebacker spot, Worilds has developed into the Steelers’ most reliable rusher. He has a compact build and plays with a low center of gravity. On most snaps, Worilds will face Oher, who has struggled all season long to maintain his technique as a pass blocker. Oher will need to force Worilds into driving off the edge as opposed to using his hands and power game to push the pocket. When Worilds lines up on the other side, he will try to deliver the bull rush to stunt Monroe’s balance. But the former Jacksonville Jaguar should have the quickness to cut off the pure speed rush.