Shorten the Passing Game on First Down
It seems like the broken record we’ve been playing about passing the ball on first down is also getting air play in the Ravens’ locker room. Torrey Smith and Joe Flacco chimed in on the subject during their weekly press conferences, with Smith pointing out that short passes can act as an extension of the running game and enable the team to get ahead in the down-and-distance battle.
Short passes on first down have seemingly been erased from the playbook, but the formula has proved successful for the Ravens under Jim Caldwell’s direction. Last year’s game against the Giants is a clear example. The Ravens threw the ball 15 times on first down, with nine attempts coming on first half drives. The passes were quick hitters in which Flacco mostly got rid of the ball on one, two, or three steps.
Against the Steelers, there will be plenty of opportunities to establish a short, rhythm passing game. Pittsburgh still employs a lot of man coverage and when they bring extra defenders, there will be openings in the middle of the field and to the sidelines.
In the past, the Ravens have been effective against the Steelers using comebacks, flares, and crossing patterns to beat the blitz. The objective for Flacco will be to get rid of the ball quickly and decisively to keep the offense on schedule.
Free the Receivers
One of the nice wrinkles Caldwell showed against the Packers was more stacked route formations. By using more bunch sets and same-side route trees, the receivers were able to break open against Green Bay’s coverage. In particular, Jacoby Jones benefited from being the slot receiver in these formations and made his presence felt with 42 yards receiving and a late touchdown.
The Ravens need to stick with the stacks when they are in their four-wide formations. The Steelers will likely play more man coverage than Green Bay, which could make different route combinations like intersecting rubs difficult to defend.
Stay out of the Crosshairs
The Packers came into last Sunday’s contest with a pass rush that had major question marks with the loss of Clay Matthews. Well, they still got the better of a Baltimore offensive line that continues to struggle. Only this time, it was the Packers’ use of the inside, delayed cross blitz that absolutely killed the Ravens. In those pressure instances, the linebackers came free, with A.J. Hawk feasting on Flacco with three sacks.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is the master of this blitz scheme, so there is no doubt that he will follow the lead of his former predecessor Dom Capers and run his own combinations.
The key player to account for will be Lawrence Timmons, who has developed into a premier inside backer. The interior tandem of center Gino Gradkowski and guard Marshall Yanda will need to do a better job of determining their assignments, and Flacco should have some over-the-middle hot routes ready to foil LeBeau’s blitz.
He’s Still the Same Ben
Every year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger plays is another year closer to his career coming to a screeching halt. At least it seems that way given the constant and vicious hits he takes. However, the two-time Super Bowl champion remains upright and as dangerous as ever despite the cards he’s been dealt on offense. This year, he’s been able to make plays without his top speed threat (Mike Wallace), his starting center (Mike Pouncey), and a revolving door at left tackle.
The Ravens didn’t encounter Roethlisberger last year, but they know all too well how difficult it is to contain him. Just like Aaron Rodgers, Roethlisberger has the ability to escape the pocket and break tackles. And once he gets the space to throw the ball, he can burn the Baltimore secondary on a big play just as Rodgers did on a picturesque 64-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson.
The front seven has to do a much better job of bringing Roethlisberger down than they did against Rodgers. The problem is Roethlisberger is a bigger guy who bounces off of tackles. If he’s allowed to break free as Rodgers did, fans will see some of the old Roethlisberger magic on display in Heinz Field.
Bottle up the Pass Catchers
Another area in which the Baltimore defense struggled against the Packers was their open field tackling. For instance, the defensive backs looked miserable trying to bring down receiver Jarret Boykin on a bubble screen that went for 43 yards.
The Steelers put on a bubble screen clinic against the Jets last Sunday. Under offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s dink and dunk style of offense, screens are plentiful and effective, as receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have the elusiveness to make defenders miss in the open field.
The Ravens have struggled to defend this play all year. If they can’t clean up their tackling in space, the Steelers will move the chains at will. On the other hand, if they can limit the YAC underneath, the defense should be able to string together a few three-and-outs.
Attack the Left Side
The Steelers have a new left tackle after losing Levi Brown for the season. Kelvin Beachum is a converted guard who lacks the ideal size and extension to play on the blind side. Still, he’ll get the first crack to handle the duties of keeping Roethlisberger clean – something the Steelers have struggled to do most of the season.
If the Ravens are playing well on first and second down, they should have more third-and-long rush opportunities to test Beachum. The Steelers will likely use chips and double-team tactics to help Beachum against Terrell Suggs. But the Ravens should counter with overloads to Beachum’s side to keep him guessing and overwhelm the extra blockers.
One-on-One Battle of the Week
Torrey Smith versus Ike Taylor
This matchup has turned into a dog fight with the Pittsburgh corner mostly getting the better of Baltimore’s speed demon. Smith comes into the game as the go-to receiver in the passing game, so there is no mistaking where Taylor’s attention will be. Taylor shadows the top receivers on any given team and he is still one of the best cover men in the game. He uses his long wingspan and incredible timing to disrupt receivers when they are trying to locate the ball. Smith will need to run precise routes to create more space against Taylor.