8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Steelers -10, Over/Under: 40.5
Bitter rivals meet with each traveling in very different directions, as the struggling Baltimore Ravens finally travel to Heinz Field to battle the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers in a crucial matchup that while initially scheduled to be contested on Thanksgiving Night, has since been postponed THREE times due to COVID-19. Following last week’s meeting with the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens (6-4, 3rd in AFC North) have have become the latest team to be ROCKED by the virus, with a series of positive cases forcing them to shut down their facility for the past TEN days, keeping them from practicing during that period of time. All in all, Baltimore has seen a staggering TWENTY-THREE players placed on the COVID/Reserve List, including a host of starters, chief among them being reigning MVP Quarterback, Lamar Jackson (63.4%, 1,948 YDS, 6.03 NY/A, 15 TD, 6 INT, 61.9 QBR). So let’s take a moment to run down some of the notable names that (pending a last minute negative test) will be out of action in this significant matchup: in addition to Jackson, starting Tight End, Mark Andrews (38 REC, 454 YDS, 11.9 Y/R, 6 TD), Receiver, Willie Snead (28 REC, 379 YDS, 13.5 Y/R, 3 TD), Defensive End, Calais Campbell (24 TKL, 5 TFL, 10 QBH, 4.0 SK, 6 PD), Defensive Tackle, Brandon Williams (20 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH), Edge-Rusher, Matthew Judon (34 TKL, 6 TFL, 17 QBH, 4.0 SK, 2 PD), Linebacker, Pernell McPhee (25 TKL, 2 TFL 11 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 PD), and Offensive Linemen, Matt Skura and Patrick Merkari, are just a few of the figures afflicted by the virus. Furthermore, the National Football League took it upon themselves to cancel the team’s final scheduled practice in lieu of Tuesday’s game, with reports of snow in the Pittsburgh area threatening to delay their arrival in the morning.
So what in the hell is John Harbaugh going to do about all this? Including his players, there has been a grand total of THIRTY members of the organization, including the team’s nutritionist that have tested positive since the Ravens last played on November 22nd. We saw over the weekend how other teams have been influenced by the virus, with the Denver Broncos relegated to fielding a Practice Squad Receiver as their Starting Quarterback which netted MISERBALE results; Kendall Hinton completed just 1-of-9 passes for thirteen yards and a pair of interceptions in a brutal 31-3 loss at home to the Saints. Granted, it doesn’t appear that Harbaugh will have to resort to such drastic measures, for Baltimore does have Robert Griffin III (50.0%, 9 YDS, 4.50 NY/A, 0 TD, 1 INT, 4.1 QBR) ready to go. The 30-year old has spent the last two seasons as Jackson’s Backup, and given his similar skillset, it shouldn’t be such a jarring transition to the veteran running the show. Of course, it’s been quite a career for Griffin, who after winning the 2011 Heisman Memorial Trophy at Baylor, was drafted Second Overall by the then-Washington Redskins in the 2012 NFL Draft, where he led the club to an NFC East title en route to earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. However, during that run he tore multiple ligaments in his knee and would never reach those heights again, going 5-15 in the Nation’s Capital over the following two seasons before being benched and would not regain the starting gig until he was outright released in 2016. The following season he caught on with the Cleveland Browns where he made five starts to little success (1-4), before once again being released, remaining as an unsigned Free Agent for the entirety of the 2017 season. After drafting the aforementioned Jackson Thirty-Second Overall in the 2108 NFL Draft, the Ravens signed Griffin to be his primary Backup, which was significant due to the fact that the two players possessed very similar skillsets, and with (Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman running a very run-heavy scheme that relied upon the young Quarterback’s electrifying mobility, Griffin’s presence ensured that there wouldn’t be a precipitous drop-off in the event that he had to step into Jackson’s role. Since arriving three years ago, he has appeared in thirteen games though only started in one, completing 56.5% of his attempts for 255 yards (4.63 NY/A), with one touchdown and three interceptions, while rushing for another seventy-one yards on twenty-five carries. This season, Griffin has attempted just two passes thus far, completing one while being intercepted on the other, which begs the question just what can we expect out of the veteran signal-caller tonight? With so many players (including ten on Offense) planning to miss this matchup due to the virus, expect a very conservative approach from Harbaugh and Roman, for mistakes have proven costly in this rivalry, even when Baltimore was at full strength; when they last met back on November 1st at M&T Bank Stadium, the hosts saw 457 total yards negated by turnovers and penalties, with Jackson committing four turnovers, including a lost fumble which was returned thirty-three yards for the opening score, and a total of nine infractions that resulted in a season-high, 111 yards lost. Unfortunately, Griffin will NOT be able to count upon Tailbacks, Mark Ingram (57 CAR, 232 YDS, 4.1 Y/A, 2 TD) and J.K. Dobbins (72 CAR, 380 YDS, 5.3 Y/A, 3 TD), who despite enduring the requisite isolation period to become eligible to play today, did NOT make the trip to Pittsburgh, robbing them of two more weapons on the offensive side of the football. No team in the league has rushed the ball more than Baltimore, who at 32.7 attempts per game (1st Overall), have churned out a prolific 160.5 yards on the ground (2nd Overall) on 4.9 yards per carry (5th Overall), which has played a sizeable role in their success on third down, converting on 45.5% of their attempts (7th Overall). Without Jackson, Ingram, and Dobbins (not to mention Pro-Bowl Fullback Patrick Ricard), who account for 1,187 of the team’s 1,605 rushing yards, it’ll be up to capable veteran, Gus Edwards (85 CAR, 376 YDS, 4.4 Y/A, 3 TD), to shoulder the load in the Backfield.
When we last saw the Ravens, they dropped their third game in four weeks in a 30-24 loss against the Titans, an affair that needed Overtime to decide a victor. This rematch of last year’s Playoff was heated even before the opening kickoff as the two sides needed to be separated, with Tennessee Cornerback, Malcolm Butler, shouting at Harbaugh at midfield. Once the game ensued, the two combatants traded blows with Baltimore gradually growing into a 21-10 lead early in the Second Half via a 31-yard strike from Jackson to Andrews, who was ironically covered by the aforementioned Butler. However, momentum would begin to change hands as the visitors responded with back-to-back drives ending in a field goal, bookending an interception of Jackson, to cut the lead to 21-16. After their next drive stalled, the Ravens relinquished a game-changing 10-play, 90-yard drive which saw them lose their advantage as A.J. Brown bulldozed his way into the end zone with help of his teammates to take a 24-21 lead with 2:18 left in the game. A 29-yard Justin Tucker Field Goal would send the contest into Overtime, but after a quick 3 & Out, Baltimore once again succumbed to the might of reigning Rushing Champion, Derrick Henry, who ripped off a signature 29-yard touchdown run to end the affair altogether. Just as they were back in January, the Ravens were pummeled by the Titans’ ground game, conceding 173 yards on thirty-four attempts, including 133 courtesy of Henry. Meanwhile, the Offense struggled once again, mustering just 306 total yards as Jackson completed 17-of-29 passes for 186 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while rushing for another fifty-one yards on thirteen carries.
Meanwhile, as their opponent continues to struggle, the surging Steelers (10-0, 1st in AFC North) have extended their franchise-best start to ten consecutive victories, becoming the first team to reach that mark since the Carolina Panthers did so in 2015. Of course, that particular team managed to maintain that torrid pace all the way to the Super Bowl, which is absolutely where Pittsburgh expects to find themselves come early February. Veteran Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (67.1%, 2,534 YDS, 6.27 NY/A, 24 TD, 5 INT, 66.3 QBR), who himself has competed in three such contests, said as much earlier in the week, stating “We’re not here to go undefeated, we’re here to win Lombardi Trophies.” Well, no franchise in the National Football League has been more successful at doing that than the Steelers, who have claimed six over the course of their illustrious history, with Big Ben leading them to glory on two occasions (Super Bowls XL and XLIII). A year after slumping to 8-8 and missing the Playoffs in consecutive years for just the second time this century, Mike Tomlin’s charges reside once again among the AFC’s elite, and that difference has been none other than Roethlisberger.
In football, nothing can torpedo a season quite like an injury to a Quarterback, which the Steelers found out first-hand in 2019 when Big Ben tore ligaments in his right elbow midway through the second game of the schedule, with the ensuring surgery and rehab ending his campaign altogether. The fact that Pittsburgh managed to finish a respectable 8-8 despite starting the likes of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges under Center is remarkable unto itself, but the Defense was ELITE, ranking first in the league in both sacks (54) and takeaways (38), while the supporting cast on Offense retained enough quality to remain afloat as the Quarterbacks were tasked with simply managing the game. However, at the end of the day the Offense wasn’t good enough to put them into the Playoffs, ranking twenty-seventh overall in both points (18.1) and turnovers (30), along with thirtieth in total yards (291.3) and dead-last in red zone percentage (35.0%). The obvious remedy to the situation was a healthy Roethlisberger, but there were legitimate concerns over just how much the 38-year old had left in the tank, particularly coming off such an injury to his throwing arm at this stage of his career. Surely even at 50.0%-75% he would be better than his replacements from 2019, right? Well, the faithful in Western Pennsylvania must be happy to see the six-time Pro-Bowler back in the saddle, with the attack improving immensely upon his return; Pittsburgh has averaged a prolific 29.8 points (4th Overall) on 356.5 total yards (21st Overall), while committing just nine turnovers (3rd Overall) and making the most of their many trips into the red zone, where they’ve scored a touchdown on 69.4% of their opportunities (7th Overall). Roethlisberger himself has thrived within an Offense that has featured far fewer bombs downfield, and more of a rhythm-based approach flooding the short to intermediate areas of the gridiron, leading to the second-highest completion percentage of his career (67.1%) and a net yards per attempt of 6.27, which excluding last year is his lowest such figure since 2008, with both statistics indicating that he’s getting the ball out of his hands much quicker than ever before. And even after the high-profile departures of Pro-Bowlers, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, this unit is still flush with talent, particularly at Receiver where JuJu Smith-Schuster (58 REC, 535 YDS, 9.2 Y/R, 5 TD), Diontae Johnson (49 REC, 537 YDS, 11.0 Y/R, 4 TD), and Chase Claypool (39 REC, 559 YDS, 14.3 Y/R, 8 TD), have provided him with a quality arsenal of weaponry. Claypool has been the biggest addition, with the Rookie serving as the primary option in the vertical game, using his 6-4, 228 lb frame to box out smaller defenders on jump balls. When the Steelers met the Ravens earlier in the year, Roethlisberger and the Offense started slowly, punting on four of their first five drives of the affair (fumbling away the first), but eventually found their rhythm scoring touchdowns on three of their final five possessions. Though his numbers won’t jump off the screen by any means (21-of-32, 182 YDS, 2 TD), he efficiently managed the game while his counterpart turned into a turnover machine, further underscoring what this team needs out of their Quarterback in order to contend. We’ll see if he can continue to do so against Baltimore, who over the course of his career he’s gone to war against on many occasions, owning a 14-10 record in twenty-four meetings, with forty-one touchdowns and twenty-eight turnovers (his most against any single opponent), while sporting a 2-1 mark in three Postseason affairs, totaling four touchdowns and two interceptions.
When we last saw the Steelers, they extended their unbeaten start to ten games after easily disposing of one the weaker teams in the league, the Jacksonville Jaguars, in a comfortable 27-3 victory. After the Jags ended their opening drive with a field goal, the visitors would slowly run off twenty-seven unanswered points in an affair that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would lead you to believe. This was total domination by Pittsburgh, who held decisive advantages in a slew of categories including total yards (373-206), first downs (23-14), time of possession (36:29), and turnover differential (Plus-3). Roethlisberger had little trouble in completing 32-of-46 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns, with the aforementioned Johnson hauling in twelve receptions for 111 yards on sixteen targets, while Claypool and Tight End, Eric Ebron (35 REC, 359 YDS, 10.3 Y/R, 4 TD), each reeled in a score. Defensively, they were utterly dominant, relegating the hosts a miserable performance, which was particularly true for their Quarterback, Jake Luton, who mustered a miserable 151 yards and four interceptions on 16-of-37 passing. Defensive Backs, Minkah Fitzpatrick (47 TKL, 1 FF, 4 INT, 6 PD, 1 TD) and Terrell Edmunds (44 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 7 PD), each picked him off twice, while Defensive Linemen, Stephon Tuitt (32 TKL, 7 TFL, 18 QBH, 7.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD) and Cameron Heyward (34 TKL, 4 TFL, 14 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 INT, 1 PD), recorded a sack apiece with the former also forcing a fumble. With the Offense now pulling their weight, the Defense has been afforded the luxury of rest, which has in turn paid dividends with their collective performance; they’re leading the league in points allowed (17.4), takeaways (21) and sacks (38). As we stated earlier, Baltimore’s Jackson turned in one of the worst showing of his career in their previous meeting this season, and this current incarnation of the Steel Curtain were the authors of his misery, forcing him into four turnovers, and returning an interception for a touchdown and sacking him four times.