Top Spot in The AFC North is up For Grabs
When you’re struggling on offense, you need to find a way to get the ball to players who can gain yards after contact (YAC). For the Ravens, this is especially the case when two of your more explosive and elusive players are your tailbacks. Terrance West has been the most productive player on offense since he took over as a starter against the Raiders. Yet he only managed 8 carries against the Jets and had zero catches. What’s worse is that rookie tailback Kenneth Dixon wasn’t featured at all in the passing game despite facing a New York linebacker group that’s been exposed in space.
If what John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have said during the bye week is any indication, both backs will be fed as pass catchers against Pittsburgh. In the case of West, leak outs in the middle of the field are better isolation opportunities against the Steelers’ inside backers. Dixon should be used as the motion/move guy who can dictate one-on-one matchups on the outside.
Here’s another thought: Both backs can co-exist in different personnel groupings. The Ravens showed a lot of two-back looks from the gun featuring fullback Kyle Juszczyk and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro. West and Dixon need to take their place in those third-down passing situations to provide with Joe Flacco with more viable outlets who can gain YAC in the open field.
The concern with playing Dixon is his pass protection reliability. Against a Pittsburgh defense that doesn’t blitz as often as they did a year ago (and throughout their history for that matter), the Ravens can afford to take a risk.
Attack the Edges
It’s no secret that the Steelers have been horrendous against the run this season. The last two games in particular, the Pittsburgh defense was gashed on perimeter runs. Edge discipline has been an afterthought as their front has over-pursued, getting caught in the wash inside, and misplaying their gaps to open up alleys off-tackle.
One of the run-blocking combinations that worked well for New England was sliding their line right to block down and pull their tight ends (Gronk) to take on the outside backer. The Ravens had success with this same scheme against the Redskins, and they should retrace those steps on Sunday.
Look for West to be featured on more outside zone stretches to the strong-side, especially with the return of Marshall Yanda.
Control the Clock
Ball control and winning the time of possession battle hasn’t exactly been a point of emphasis for an offense that has been a three-and-out machine. However, the Ravens won’t have much of a chance to win a shootout against the Steelers, so finding ways to eat up the clock and sustain drives is a must.
Emphasizing the running game and underneath passing game with West and Dixon will certainly help the cause. But Flacco needs to be efficient throwing the football. Instead of having to be impatient and force the ball downfield, the Steelers (who have been dropping more players into coverage and playing softer coverage overall) should present more chances to work the short passing game. They’ve emphasized taking away the big play and they’re willing to give up yards underneath.
The question is, can Flacco take advantage? He’ll need to for the Ravens to keep the high-powered Steelers off the field.
Set the Edge
I mentioned how the Steelers front seven had been exposed off-tackle in their last two games against the Dolphins and Patriots. Well the story was similar for the Ravens against the Jets two weeks ago. Running back Matt Forte did a nice job of baiting the ILBs to over-pursue inside by staying patient, cutting inside, and then turning the corner.
Le’Veon Bell is the king of patience. He’s notorious for practically coming to a stop to let his blocks develop before he accelerates through the hole. Backers struggle to keep Bell pinned because he will stop and start to lull defenders into taking false steps. Once they commit too far inside, he’ll use a jump-cut to get to the perimeter. The Steelers also use an assortment of counter runs to stress defenses to maintain their edge discipline.
Suffice it to say, the Ravens need to clean up their perimeter run defense to not only keep Bell from ripping off chunk plays, but to keep Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, and Eli Rodgers from turning the corner on end arounds and reverses. The Jets were able to hit on a well-timed reverse to take advantage of the defense’s lack of discipline two weeks ago. Getting Terrell Suggs back in the lineup should help.
The Traveling Bell
Not only is Bell the priority in the run game, he’s as much of a priority in the passing game. In fact, Bell is essentially a slot receiver for the Steelers. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley will put the star playmaker in motion during the pre-snap phase to distinguish between man or zone coverage, and to draw a linebacker in coverage.
In past matchups, C.J. Mosley has had to be the backer who moves with Bell out wide. That matchup isn’t ideal on a consistent basis despite Mosley’s improved coverage skills. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to mix up coverage responsibilities against the dual-purpose threat, and work in some zone coverage against Bell.
With Big Ben back in the lineup, being able to disguise pressures will be critical for Pees’ defense. Throughout this rivalry, Pees has actually held his own against Roethlisberger in the pre-snap phase, at times winning the chess match outright.
Pees has been especially good at dialing up overload blitzes that have gotten home against the Steelers’ QB in key third-down situations. Pees has shown the overload look to the weak or strong-side of the formation, baited Big Ben to slide the protection, only to bring the overload from the opposite side.
To this point in the season, Pees has barely run any overload exchange blitzes. All of his pressures seem to come from the A-gaps (up the gut), either through cross blitzes or bluff exchanges between the inside backers.
The Ravens need to test Roethlisberger’s mobility by forcing him to scramble left and right, and get him out of his pure pocket comfort zone.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Cornerback Jimmy Smith versus Wide Receiver Antonio Brown
There are plenty of great receivers in the league but Brown remains the most complete. He plays the X, Z, slot, lines up in the backfield, and runs the entire route tree. Like most of the greats, all of his patterns look the same, whether he’s running a fly pattern or decelerating coming out of his breaks on a comeback. Smith has been on a nice run and tends to play at his best against his Pittsburgh rival. He uses his length to disrupt Brown on sideline routes and times his jams well. The biggest key for Smith will be keeping his footwork in check on double moves – Brown can sell the initial stem as well as anyone, and Smith has a tendency to fall for false moves.