Lost in the Chicken Little-style, “sky is falling” rhetoric following the Ravens’ Week 4 loss to the Cleveland Browns is the fact that Baltimore still managed to put up six yards per carry. On the year, the Ravens still lead the league in rushing yards and are averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Lamar Jackson leads the league with 6.6 yards per attempt and Mark Ingram comes in at third with 6 yards per carry. It’s clear that the Ravens are good at running the football.
Baltimore’s Week 5 opponent, the Steelers, are 22nd in the league in rush yards allowed per game with 122.8. Running the ball should not be a huge challenge for Ingram and the Ravens offensive line, but success should be measured in more than yards on Sunday.
Having a well-orchestrated rushing attack will help the team in a variety of ways. On offense, it will maintain the balance that Greg Roman has worked to establish and keep the Steelers pass rushers from pinning their ears back and getting after Jackson. More importantly though, the Ravens rushing attack could go a long way in helping their defense. It feels like it’s talked about every week, but it becomes even more critical when the defense is struggling: running the ball and controlling the clock will keep the Steelers offense off the field and limit the opportunities that the Ravens defense has to make the kinds of mistakes that have cost them games in the last two weeks.
Help on the Edge
Among those who follow the NFL Draft, there are two unflinching truths about the Pittsburgh Steelers. First, they will take a WR (they’ve taken at least one in 14 of the last 15 drafts). Second, they love taking LBs early. While their frequent selection of WRs has worked very well in the past, it seems that the selection of backers early may be starting to pay dividends for the Black and Gold.
Starting outside linebackers Bud Dupree (1st round, 2015) and T.J. Watt (1st round, 2017) have been a handful for opponents in 2019. Boosted by an eight-sack performance against arguably the worst offensive line in football in Week 4, the Steelers find themselves 4th in the NFL with 14 sacks. If they can maintain some of their momentum from Monday night, the Ravens offensive tackles could be in for a long afternoon at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Ronnie Stanley, who has played at an All-Pro level so far in 2019, will be matched up most often against Dupree, while Orlando Brown Jr. will most often face off against Watt. While both Ravens tackles would certainly appreciate some help, it makes sense to give more assistance to Brown Jr., who draws the tougher assignment. Watt is an outstanding athlete who has the ability to win with both speed and power and has recently shown the same knack for the big play that has made his older brother, J.J., one of the most feared defenders in the NFL. In an effort to keep Jackson clean and the offense in rhythm, Roman should use Nick Boyle, Ingram or an offensive line “slide call” to assist Brown Jr. with Watt on Sunday.
Throw the “Speed Out” to Hollywood
A “speed out” is a ten-yard out route in which the receiver replaces the traditional, hard 90 degree break with a rounded break towards the sideline. It’s a route that’s best run when it’s easier to beat the defender with pure speed than with route running ability.
While the speed out is obviously most effective with a fast WR, it gains additional effectiveness when run against a CB that is playing well off the line of scrimmage. Against the Steelers on Monday night football earlier this week, combine record breaking speedster John Ross ran a speed out against a Steelers CB who initially lined up about ten yards off the line of scrimmage. Justifiably anxious about Ross’ ability to blow past him for a big play, the CB backpedaled at the snap to give Ross additional cushion and allowed an easy sideline completion from Andy Dalton.
The Ravens need to start throwing the speed out to Hollywood Brown. Like Ross, Brown possess the speed to scare NFL cornerbacks and cause his opponents to regularly give him ten or more yards of cushion before the snap. Taking advantage of that cushion and running the speed out will result in easy completions, keep cornerbacks honest and help to further develop Brown’s role in the Baltimore offense.
Mix it Up at ILB
As a whole, the Ravens defense has been a borderline disaster in 2019. After getting a fifth preseason game against the Dolphins in Week 1, the defense had serious communication issues in Week 2 and 3. While they cleaned up most, if not all, of the communication issues for Week 4, they had issues with simply playing sound football and tackling.
While reasonable minds could justifiably blame a whole host of reasons why the Ravens are 27th in the league in yards allowed, the inside linebacker group may be at the top of the list. Since losing C.J. Mosley to a massive contract from the NY Jets in the offseason, the Ravens just haven’t been the same. At times, the ILB group has looked lost in coverage and struggled mightily stopping the run against Nick Chubb. They’ve struggled so much, in fact, that they saw it necessary to sign two veteran ILBs (Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort) to the team this past week.
The Ravens need to find a combination that works at inside backer. The group consisting of Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor, Kenny Young and Chris Board has been far from great. Against the Steelers, Wink Martindale would do well to try a variety of combinations at the two spots to get some improvement out of that position. Whether that be using Bynes or Fort or rotating in guys who are listed as safeties like Anthony Levine or DeShon Elliot, finding a formula that works at the second level is an important step to getting this sputtering Ravens defense back on track for the long run.
Locking down an opponent’s number one WR with their top CB has never been the Ravens modus operandi. For years, we’ve watched the Ravens let their outside CBs roam one side of the field for an entire season and allowed opponents to dictate matchups to them.
Times have changed. With each passing week, it has become more and more clear that the Ravens are finally beginning to embrace “following” opposing WRs. “Following” is the act of having one CB follow one WR around the field, regardless of where they go. The Ravens’ full scale embrace of following reached new heights against the Browns when Marlon Humphrey covered Odell Beckham Jr. all game and no matter where he lined up on the field. While widely-discussed extracurricular activities between the two became the national headline, the stat line shows that Humphrey held the highly touted Browns wide out to two receptions and twenty yards on the day.
Against the Steelers, Humphrey should follow JuJu Smith-Schuster. The third year player out of USC is, without question, Pittsburgh’s most dangerous WR. Smith-Schuster is a well-rounded WR who is also the Steelers most dangerous big play threat. If Wink Martindale tasks Humphrey with following Smith-Schuster, Humphrey may severely limit the Steelers best WR and take away the go-to threat that Mason Rudolph desperately needs as he continues to grow into his new role as a starting QB.
Key the RBs
In place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger, second-year QB Rudolph has been incredibly conservative as a passer. While it’s undoubtedly part of the play calling, Rudolph has rarely ventured to throw a pass more than 10 or 15 yards down the field. Against the Bengals in Week 4, only three of Rudolph’s 28 pass attempts traveled more than 10 yards through the air.
More comfortable with the dink and dunk game than with the downfield passing game, Rudolph has incorporated his backs into the passing game more than any other QB in the NFL during his time as a starter. Against the Bengals, James Conner caught eight passes for 83 yards and a TD while his backup Jaylen Samuels caught eight passes for 57 yards.
The Ravens absolutely have to cover the Steelers RBs on Sunday. Because their ILB group has struggled in pass coverage, Martindale might want to deploy safeties to LB depth to cover the Steelers top two RBs. With a first-year starting QB who completed over half of his passes to his backs in his last game, the Ravens absolutely have to key that position if they hope to limit Pittsburgh’s passing game.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Steelers OLB T.J. Watt versus Ravens OT Orlando Brown Jr.
This one has everything: two young players with NFL pedigrees in a division rivalry who will be battling each other for years to come. A third-year pro out of Wisconsin, Watt has 2.5 sacks to go along with one forced fumble and one interception through four games in 2019. Brown Jr., the second-year RT out of Oklahoma, has looked good and is continuing to show every week why he was a steal in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. The matchup between Watt and Brown Jr. on Sunday could have a real impact on the outcome of the game. If Brown Jr. isn’t on his “A” game on Sunday, Watt has the big play ability to ruin the Ravens offense.