8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Steelers -4.5, Over/Under: 44
Something has to got to give as the red-hot Pittsburgh Steelers host the surging Baltimore Ravens in the second leg of their annual meeting, with plenty of Playoff Implications in this, one of the NFL’s most bitter rivalries. The Bye Week sure turned out to be a godsend for the Ravens (7-5, 2nd in AFC North), who ever since that period of rest have looked revitalized, winning three consecutive contests en route to positioning themselves in the AFC’s final Wild Card. The schedule certainly looks favorable for John Harbaugh’s charges, who after tonight’s meeting with Pittsburgh travel to winless Cleveland before ending the Regular Season with home dates against the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals. Apart from having already defeated both the Bengals and Browns this season (by a combined score of 44-10, no less), the record of their remaining opponents stands at a hardly intimidating 8-27 (.229). Then again, this is a team that has feasted upon good fortune this year, which is really rather poetic given all the misfortune they sustained coming into the campaign. With Joe Flacco (65.1%, 178.7 Y/G, 4.83 NY/A, 11 TD, 11 INT) sidelined throughout the entirety of Training Camp and the Preseason due to an ailing back, and a laundry list of injuries and suspensions that had robbed the Offensive Line and the Backfield of a number of prominent figures, it was high time that Baltimore received a break from the Football Gods, with one look at their schedule revealing this gift; this team has faced only a handful of quality Quarterbacks in 2017, with four of their opponents fielding Backup Signal-Callers, while two more have trotted out Rookies at the game’s most important position. Unsurprisingly, they’ve made the most of their opportunities, going 5-1 in such contests, with their lone loss coming in Overtime to Mitch Trubisky and the Chicago Bears. As you can imagine, the Defense, which has ranked among the league’s best for years now, has had a rather heavy hand in their success; through twelve games, Baltimore has allowed just 17.3 Points (3rd Overall) on 311.3 Total Yards (7th Overall), including 198.6 Yards versus the Pass (3rd Overall) on 5.6 Net Yards per Attempt (8th Overall), along with 112.7 Yards against the Run (16th Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (9th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve also been among the league’s best in terms of Situational Football, ranking Fifth Overall in opponent’s Third Down Conversion Rate (34.0%) and Eighth in Red Zone Touchdown Rate (46.9%), while racking up Thirty-Three Sacks (T-6th Overall) and leading the league in Takeaways, with a whopping Twenty-Nine Turnovers to their credit. Just how heavily have Turnovers factored into their success this season, you ask? Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees’ troops have logged a Takeaway in all but one game this season, and have registered at least three of them on five occasions, with the team enjoying a 5-0 record in such games. In fact, during their current three-game winning streak, their Turnover Differential stands at a staggering Plus-10. Furthermore, as they’ve done in the past, this unit has even taken the liberty of scoring as well, with the Defense responsible for Five Touchdowns thus far, with Cornerback Jimmy Smith (28 TKL, 3 INT, 1 TD, 9 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD) owning a pair of scores. Granted, they’re going to have to carry on without Smith’s services, after the Cornerback tore his Achilles in last weekend’s 44-20 drubbing of the Detroit Lions. And that ladies and gentlemen, coupled with one of the better Special Teams units in the NFL, is precisely how you offset one of the least-productive Offenses in the league. Granted, with all the injuries on their ledger, the expectations for this group were far from even tepid, with Flacco shouldering the load for a unit averaging 23.3 Points (13th Overall) on 302.0 Total Yards (30th Overall), including 186.5 Yards through the air (31st Overall) on a league-worst 4.9 Net Yards per Attempt (32nd Overall), and another 115.5 Yards on the ground (12th Overall) on 4.0 Yards per Carry (18th Overall). However, that scoring figure is misleading, for the Offense hasn’t accounted for much, with the Defense scoring Five Touchdowns and Special Teams totaling two of their own, while perennial All-Pro Kicker Justin Tucker (26/29 FGA) has shredded Twenty-Six Field Goals with another Twenty-Six Extra Points. Altogether that equates to the Defense and Special Teams accounting for 146 of the team’s points (1st Overall), which edges the Offense, which is responsible for 134 points, or in other words a scant 11.2 Points per Game (32nd Overall). However, they are coming off what is clearly their finest offensive performance of the year, scoring Forty-Four Points on a season-high 370 Total Yards against Detroit, in which Flacco calmly completed 23-of-36 Attempts for a season-high 269 Yards with Two Touchdowns and no Turnovers. Whether or not this is something that is sustainable remains to be seen, and we’ll see if they can keep this going as they travel to Heinz Field, which admittedly is a place where they’ve traditionally struggled; since Harbaugh came to town back in 2008, Baltimore is 5-7 in Pittsburgh, including a 1-2 record in the Playoffs.
Meanwhile, winners of seven straight contests, the Steelers (10-2, 1st in AFC North) enter a crucial part of their schedule, with back-to-back home games against yet another bitter division rival, the Baltimore Ravens, followed by the reigning Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, whom they are in a heated race with for the No. One Seed in the AFC. Of course, this comes off the heels of Monday Night’s controversial 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, a brutal clash between division foes that was marred by a ridiculous Twenty Penalties for 239 Yards, a suspension, and unfortunately a potentially career-ending hit. For their part, Pittsburgh “only” accounted for Seven Penalties and Sixty-Six Yards lost, though the flag that will loom the largest for them is the one that has led to the suspension of Rookie Wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster (37 REC, 585 YDS, 5 TD), who after dealing out a vicious crack-back block to Bengals’ Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, proceeded to stand over his fallen adversary and taunt him. Though he wasn’t expelled from the affair, the explosive young Receiver will have to sit out of tonight’s clash with Baltimore. However, overshadowing that news is the current status of Mike Tomlin’s own Linebacker, Ryan Shazier (89 TKL, 3 INT, 10 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR), who in delivering a hit early in the game, looked to have sustained serious damage to his neck and spinal area. The 25-Year Old was removed from the field and escorted to a local hospital, where he would spend the following two days before being transported back to Pittsburgh to receive further treatment. Needless to say, the outcome is not positive for the franchise, who will be without the Pro Bowler for the remainder of the season and possibly beyond that, as Shazier will reportedly need at least three months to recover from surgery before he can even consider a return to the field. This is indeed a blow to a Defense that has really turned the corner in 2017, allowing 17.8 Points (5th Overall) on 294.6 Total Yards (4th Overall), including 195.8 Yards versus the Pass (2nd Overall) on 5.6 Net Yards per Attempt (5th Overall), along with another 98.8 Yards against the Run (8th Overall) on 4.2 Yards per Carry (17th Overall), while accumulating Forty Sacks (2nd Overall). While it remains to be seen just how Shazier’s absence effects the play of the Defense, the loss of Smith-Schuster will likely force the Offense to adjust it’s focus, with Pro Bowl Tailback Le’Veon Bell (270 CAR, 1,057 YDS, 5 TD) shouldering an even greater load of the attack. Now at this juncture of the season, that may not be what Tomlin really wants to see, particularly when you consider Bell’s work rate thus far; the All-Pro currently leads the NFL in both Rushing Attempts (270) and Rushing Yards (1,057), while also factoring heavily into the Passing Game, with Sixty-Six Receptions for 502 Yards and a Touchdown. Simply put, no skill position player in the NFL has touched the football more than Bell. Vastly approaching a career-high in carries, it leaves one to wonder whether or not the volume of touches has begun to wear him down a bit; Bell averaged 4.7, 4.9, and 4.9 Yards per Carry between 2014 and 2016, only to see that figure drop significantly to 3.9 this season, with his overall Yards per Touch checking in at 4.6. With that said, the case can also be made that he could be getting stronger as we progress towards the end of the Regular Season, for Bell has averaged over 4.0 Yards per Carry in his last two outings after four consecutive weeks below that figure. In fact, the last time that he managed to string together back-to-back 4.0-Yard per Carry Performances was against the Ravens, whom he trampled for 144 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns on Thirty-Five Carries, while hauling in another four Catches for Forty-Two Yards in a 26-9 victory at M&T Bank Stadium back on October 1st. In eight career meetings with Baltimore, Bell has averaged 117.9 All-Purpose Yards on 5.1 Yards per Touch, with Seven Total Touchdowns, his most against any other opponent, despite Pittsburgh going just 4-4 in such encounters. Tomlin and Co. hope that he can unlock the Steelers’ scoring woes, for this is an Offense that has proved maddeningly inconsistent in the Red Zone, having to settle for Field Goals far too often. Despite ranking Seventh Overall in Total Offense (376.6 Y/G), they rank just Twelfth in Scoring (23.4 P/G), thanks in large part to a middling Third Down Conversion Percentage (39.2%, 14th Overall) and a miserable Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (45.7%, 26th Overall). One would expect more from a unit that counts the likes of Ben Roethlisberger (62.8%, 269.8 Y/G, 6.92 NY/A, 22 TD, 13 INT), Antonio Brown (88 REC, 1,296 YDS, 9 TD), and the aforementioned Bell among their ranks, but the fact remains that they’ve rarely been firing on all cylinders at once despite their lofty place in the standings. We’ve been saying it all year, but at some point they’re going to have to figure this out, making it now or never entering this crucial two-game stretch.