1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Ravens -3.5, Over/Under: 46.5
One of the National Football League’s bitterest rivalries takes centerstage once again, as the Baltimore Ravens play host to the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers, in this massive matchup that is sure to have Playoff implications from M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Two of the most consistently successful teams in the league over the past two decades, the Steelers and Ravens have dominated the AFC North, combining for fifteen division titles since 2000, ten appearances in the AFC Championship Game (winning five), and four Lombardi Trophies to their credit, with each side hoisting two apiece. Furthermore, in addition to meeting twice a year during the Regular Season, they’ve also crossed paths in the Playoffs on a number of occasions, four to be exact, with Pittsburgh holding a 3-1 advantage. However, in this case it’s been the Steelers (6-0, 1st in AFC North) who haven’t quite been themselves of late; they’ve missed the Postseason in each of the last two years, which is something that they’ve only managed to do once beforehand since the turn of the century, though they’ve also gotten off to a perfect 6-0 start, which believe it or not, marks the first time in the long storied history of the franchise that they’ve done so. So how have they returned to prominence, you ask? It’s as simple as returning to health and welcoming back their Franchise Quarterback.
Despite narrowly missing out on the Postseason in 2019, the Steelers lumbered to an 8-8 finish despite an Offense that was void of weapons on all levels as injuries, holdouts, and trades laid low one of the league’s most explosive attacks. It all began in the previous Offseason when the team shipped out wantaway All-Pro Receiver, Antonio Brown, in a trade with the Raiders, while also failing to come to terms on a contract extension with fellow All-Pro, Le’Veon Bell, who sat out the entirety of the 2019. Then injuries struck in the most key of positions, with longtime Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (68.2%, 1,446 YDS, 6.16 NY/A, 13 TD, 4 INT, 62.2 QBR), tearing ligaments in his throwing elbow, ending his campaign after just two games, while Receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster (32 REC, 279 YDS, 8.7 Y/R, 3 TD), and Tailback, James Conner (95 CAR, 451 YDS, 4.7 Y/A, 4 TD), also missed multiple contests with various ailments. The play that Mike Tomlin received at Quarterback was particularly dreadful, as the venerable Head Coach was forced to rely upon third-stringer Mason Rudolph and Undrafted Free Agent, Devlin Hodges, for the bulk of the campaign. However, as bad as the Offense was, and it was VERY poor, the Defense was phenomenal, leading the league in both takeaways and sacks, oftentimes appearing to be persevering in spite of their teammates on the opposite side of the football. Now, with the departures of Brown and Bell well in the rearview mirror, and a healthy Roethlisberger back in the saddle, the Offense has climbed back up the ranks, averaging 30.5 points per game (6th Overall) a stark contrast from the paltry 18.1 points that they managed in 2019. With that said, the concern has been Roethlisberger, and how strong his arm would remain at the age of thirty-eight and coming off Tommy John Surgery. While we’ve seen the veteran occasionally take his shots downfield, he’s been far more cautious in doing so, oftentimes choosing to check down to his intermediate targets in hopes of them making plays after the catch. Through six games he’s averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, 6.16 net yards per attempt, and 9.9 yards per completion, which not including last year’s brief, injury-shortened performance, would mark the lowest such figures since 2008, and in the case of the first two statistics, career-worsts. Could this be a case of Big Ben finally coming to terms with his mortality in the twilight of his career, or is he simply working his arm (and psyche) back into game shape? Either way, he’s not spoiled for weapons, even with the aforementioned dynamic duo of Brown and Bell off to greener pastures; now healthy, Conner has run with purpose averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per carry, while Smith-Schuster is simply happy to have his Quarterback throwing his way again, while Rookie Receiver, Chase Claypool (18 REC, 333 YDS, 18.5 Y/R, 4 TD), has offered Roethlisberger plenty of opportunities downfield reeling in a whopping 18.5 yards per reception. Now he’ll get an opportunity to truly test his arm and weapons in this meeting with the Ravens, whom he has participated in some truly memorable battles over the course of his seventeen-year career; in twenty-three meetings during the Regular Season, Big Ben is 13-10 against Baltimore, tossing thirty-seven touchdowns opposed to twenty-three interceptions, and in the Playoffs is 2-1 against them with his last victory coming in January 15th, 2011.
When we last saw the Steelers, they managed to extend their perfect start to 2020 with a 27-24 victory on the road at the previously unbeaten Tennessee Titans. This battle of perfects was rather one-sided early as Pittsburgh raced out to a commanding 24-7 lead at Halftime, with Roethlisberger twice finding Diontae Thompson (24 REC, 227 YDS, 9.5 Y/R, 3 TD) for touchdowns, and Benny Snell Jr. (44 CAR, 167 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 2 TD) rushing into the End Zone to boot. After extending their lead to 27-7 shortly after intermission, Tomlin’s charges allowed Tennessee to crawl back into the affair, conceding a 73-yard bomb from Titans’ Quarterback, Ryan Tannehill to A.J. Brown, kicking off a string of seventeen unanswered points, aided by a pair of interceptions thrown by Roethlisberger. The contest could very well have been extended, as the hosts threatened late, driving downfield to set up a would-be game-tying field goal, though Stephen Gostkowski would ultimately miss the 45-yard attempt, ending the rally. It was a tale of two halves for the visitors, who scored twenty-four points on 203 total yards in the first, but were relegated to just three points on 160 total yards in the second. Big Ben threw for 268 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions, but needed to complete 32-of-49 passes in reach those figures, serving as further proof of his reticence to push the football vertically. Smith-Schuster and Thompson combined for eighteen catches, 165 yards and a pair of scores, while Conner piled up 111 yards from scrimmage on twenty-three touches. Offensive inconsistencies aside, Tomlin will rest comfortably knowing that his Defense once again rose to the occasion, holding Tennessee to a mere 292 total yards on fifteen first downs, all the while limiting reigning Rushing Champion, Derrick Henry, to a manageable seventy-five yards on twenty attempts.
Meanwhile, the Ravens (5-1, 2nd in AFC North) remain in striking distance of their bitter foe, trailing them by only a single game within the Division, which they’ve won in each of the last two seasons. After coming off a franchise-best 14-2 finish in 2019, Baltimore is aiming for grander things down the road, as each of their last two runs through the Postseason have been unexpectedly brief; two years ago they struggled to move the football in a 23-17 loss at home to the Los Angeles Chargers on Wild Card Weekend, while getting humbled in a 28-12 upset at the hands of the Titans in the Divisional Round last January. This is a team that has gradually improved with each passing season, armed with a punishing rushing attack led by reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson (63.0%, 1,135 YDS, 5.89 NY/A, 10 TD, 2 INT, 76.8 QBR), and an aggressive Defense featuring one of the most sound Secondaries in the league. Now in his thirteenth year with the franchise, John Harbaugh has become one of the NFL’s elderstatesmen among coaches, posting a 123-75 record (.621), leading his charges to eight Playoff appearances, including Super Bowl glory in 2013. Furthermore, he’s given the Steelers just as much as he’s taken, earning a 14-13 record in head-to-head matchups including the Postseason, besting them in each of last year’s two meetings. One of the most innovative coaches, will he finally be able to unlock the potential of the Offense and guide the Ravens to success in January?
While we’ll indeed have to wait and see if Baltimore will fair any better in the Playoffs, the questions over unlocking the considerable potential of the Offense still remain. Last season, this unit was a bonafide juggernaut, leading the league in rushing attempts (37.3), yards (206.0), and yards per carry (5.5), en route to scoring the most points in the league (33.2). Jackson served as the fulcrum of the machine, rushing for 1,206 yards (and NFL record for a Quarterback), and seven touchdowns, while also pacing the league with thirty-six passing scores. Coupled with the creative playcalling of Offensive Coordinator, Greg Roman, Jackson spearheaded the most prolific rushing attack that the NFL had seen in years, serving as a true throwback in an era dominated by pass-happy Offenses. However, the major criticism of this group has been their lack of production in the passing game, particularly from the Receiving Corps, which was the last-productive in the league in 2019, accounting for just 1,419 yards or in other words an average of 88.7 yards per game or 21.8% of their offensive production. Part of this was their lack of firepower at the position, while the other was down to design, with Roman emphasizing a plethora of three-Tight End formations to further the efforts of the run game. In the Offseason, Harbaugh alongside General Manager, Eric DeCosta, focused on getting faster at Receiver, as they looked to add another dimension to the passing game, in hopes of furthering their Quarterback’s development; Baltimore added speedster, Devin Duvernay (10 REC, 90 YDS, 9.0 Y/R, 0 TD), out of Texas in the 2020 NFL Draft, while selecting versatile Tailback, J.K Dobbins (36 TCH, 228 YDS, 6.3 Y/T, 2 TD) out of Ohio State to boot. Last year’s First Round Pick, Marquise Brown (26 REC, 376 YDS, 14.5 Y/R, 1 TD), will be counted upon to play a larger role as well, which is already has averaging 62.7 yards per game, a dramatic increase over the 41.7 he posted in 2019. With that said, this passing game has yet to inspire fear from opposing Defenses, accounting for 737 yards, or an average of 122.8 yards per game, or in other words, only 35.9% of the Offense, which despite being a considerable improvement over last year still ranks in the bottom tier of the NFL. And how has this effected Jackson, you ask? Well, the third-year standout may not have reached the lofty heights that he did last season just yet, but he’s still been both effective and dynamic, completing 63.0% of his attempts for an average of 189.2 yards per game with ten touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions. However, the biggest difference is that he really hasn’t enjoyed anything close to the success that he enjoyed pushing the football downfield, averaging a meager 5.89 net yards attempt, a steep decline from the 7.13 he posted last season, but then again that goes hand in hand with his protection, which has been much poorer in 2020, suffering a sack percentage of 8.5%, up from 5.4% last year. The Offensive Line has been banged up in the early goings, with Left Tackle, Ronnie Stanley, hampered by a nagging shoulder sprain. With Defenses knowing this, Jackson has been under pressure far more frequently than he was in 2019, pressured on 24.1% of his dropbacks in comparison to 16.2% a season ago.
When we last saw the Ravens, they eased into their Bye Week following a 30-28 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in a matchup that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would have led you to believe. Baltimore was in the driver’s seat for the majority of the affair, leading 24-6 after three quarters of play, having outgained the hosts 225-145 at that point, though both sides suffered from seriously inconsistent play during that span. Then, Philadelphia managed to crawl back into the contest scoring three touchdowns in the final period, converting the two-point conversion on the first two, though were ultimately stopped cold in the tracks on the would-be game-tying play. In the end, Harbaugh’s troops owned a commanding 36:30 time of possession on the strength of 182 rushing yards on thirty-seven carries, with the aforementioned Jackson accounting for 108 yards and a touchdown on only nine attempts, including a jaunt of thirty-four yards into the End Zone to break the game wide-open in the Third Quarter. However, he didn’t have nearly as much success throwing the rock, completing 16-of-27 passes for just 186 yards and a score, taking three sacks on the evening. The Defense though, was absolutely hellacious in getting after Eagles Quarterback, Carson Wentz, who was held to 213 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-40 passing, suffering six sacks for a loss of forty-three yards, and losing a crucial fumble midway through the first stanza. Veteran Defensive End, Calais Campbell (21 TKL, 5 TFL, 10 QBH, 4.0 SK, 5 PD), was downright dominant in the trenches, racking up five tackles (four for loss) and three sacks, while the Secondary, led by Cornerbacks, Marlon Humphrey (36 TKL, 2 TFL, 4 QBH, 2.5 SK, 4 FF, 1 INT, 5 PD) and Marcus Peters (19 TKL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 4 PD), manhandled the home side’s decimated Receiving Corps. This unit only figures to be stronger as they emerge from their Bye, as DeCosta pulled off a major coup in trading for Defensive End, Yannick Ngakoue (12 TKL, 5 TFL, 7 QBH, 5.0 SK, 2 FF), in a deal with the Minnesota Vikings, who had only acquired the pass-rusher back in the Spring. The 25-year old should feel right at home with the franchise, having played his college football at the University of Maryland, and spending the first four years of his career teaming up with the aforementioned Campbell in Jacksonville.