Previewing Week 14: Ravens at Steelers
After a 44-20 drubbing of the Detroit Lions in what was undoubtedly their best offensive performance of the year, the Ravens are 7-5 and strongly in control of the second AFC Wild Card. With the Steelers pulling out yet another last second victory on Monday night, the Ravens are very unlikely to win the division, but any chance that it could happen will depend on getting a win in Pittsburgh this Sunday. The Steelers are currently riding a 7 game win streak, but the past 3 wins have all required last second FGs against significantly inferior competition. The Ravens have a better point differential than the Steelers over the course of the season despite winning 3 fewer games and Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which is a quality of opponent adjusted measure of play by play success rates for offense, defense and special teams, rates Baltimore and Pittsburgh very closely, giving Pittsburgh the slightest edge in overall team performance. Does any of this matter for the Ravens playoff aspirations? Most likely no outside of some unlikely tiebreaker situations, but the Steelers have looked like a very beatable team in recent weeks and the Ravens are starting to fire on all cylinders making Sunday night’s match-up a far more exciting game than anyone would have imagined 3 weeks ago.
When I wrote a preview for the Ravens and Steelers first meeting in Baltimore in week 4, I mentioned how the Steelers offense was still looking to find it’s groove, while their defense was looking like the more dominant unit. Since then, Pittsburgh’s trio of QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown have come alive in terms of their statistical production, but the offense is still struggling to consistently score points at the level most expected. To make matters worse the Steelers, they will be without rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster who will be serving a 1 game suspension for an illegal helmet to helmet hit on the Bengals’ Vontaze Burfict this past week while starting RT Marcus Gilbert is still serving a 4 game suspension for a PED violation.
Meanwhile, the Ravens will be playing without shutdown CB Jimmy Smith who tore his Achilles tendon in the Detroit game. First round rookie Marlon Humphrey and veteran CB Brandon Carr will be tasked with covering Brown, who is probably the best WR in the NFL. Fortunately for Humphrey and Carr, the Ravens always seem to have a strong game-plan for taking away Roethlisberger’s favorite target. Dean Pees will likely shade a safety in Brown’s direction for most of the game, daring Roethlisberger to throw into double coverage. LB C.J. Mosley, a player the Ravens can ill afford to lose and who has been dealing with injuries the past couple of weeks, also did not practice on Wednesday, so his availability is something to watch for this week.
In the team’s week 4 match-up, the Ravens largely held Brown and Roethlisberger in check, but Le’Veon Bell did significant damage to the Ravens defense accumulating over 180 yards from scrimmage while rushing for 2 TDs. The Ravens will need to do a better job of winning at the line of scrimmage and gang-tackling Bell, whose combination of patience, vision and quickness make him extremely difficult to contain. The Ravens were playing without DT Brandon Williams the first time around, but he will be on the field this time around and he could be a difference maker in this contest.
On offense, the Ravens seemed to discover something this past week. The offensive line kept QB Joe Flacco clean throughout the game, and he was able to deliver accurate passes to receivers all over the field. The Steelers pass-rush led by DE Cam Heyward is a more formidable unit than the Lions’ defensive line, but if the Ravens can continue to block well up front, the offense will have a good chance to continue their success against a Steelers defense that has been suspect as of late.
The Steelers will likely continue to miss CB Joe Haden, and they will also be without LB Ryan Shazier who had a very scary injury this past week against the Bengals when he appeared to lose all feeling in his lower body after a head first collision making a tackle. Fortunately, reports have indicated that Shazier is doing well after undergoing intensive medical care, but his absence will still be felt on the football field as he is an incredible player and leader for the Steelers.
The Ravens may try to attack the middle of the field in the passing game with RBs Danny Woodhead, Alex Collins and Buck Allen as their speed and quickness can create mismatches that Flacco can exploit. Flacco also shouldn’t be afraid to go after the Steelers CBs, especially Haden’s replacement Coty Sensabaugh, who have shown major lapses in coverage in recent weeks.
The passing attack will be far easier to execute if the Ravens are also able to run the ball effectively as they have been able to do for much of the season. Alex Collins has developed nicely into a feature RB that the team feels confident handing the ball off to 15-20 times per game, and he has rewarded the team with a robust 4.9 YPC average. The Steelers run defense has also shown some weakness recently as the Bengals were able to gash them on the ground this past week for 5.9 YPC. An effective rushing attack will also help set up the play action passing game which will help open up the intermediate and deep passing attempts.
When the Ravens and Steelers play on Sunday there may be very little on the line outside of pride, given the Steelers 3 game advantage in the standings, but it is still possible (although highly unlikely) that the Ravens could win the division if they win this week in Pittsburgh, and a Divisional win also greatly helps the Ravens Wild Card standing. Both teams are missing key players, and while the Ravens appear to be playing better football at the moment, the game is in Pittsburgh where the Steelers play a better brand of football. In the end, this game is most likely going to be a close one that could very well come down to the last play. I think the Ravens manage to pull out the victory, 22 – 20, but the result could easily go either way.