Steelers Opponent Preview: the Baltimore Ravens
Seeing the opponent preview today perhaps gives us an idea of how it must feel for the team to turn around from a Sunday game and play on Thursday night. It certainly gave me a shock when I realized it needed to go up the day after the game recap…
If there is one word which comes to mind when thinking of the recent Steelers/Ravens rivalry, it would be “brutal.” The mental images comes thick and fast—Ben with a broken nose, dragging Terrell Suggs out of the pocket so he could throw the ball away and avoid a sack on a critical down. James Harrison karate-chopping Joe Flacco’s arm to cause a fumble. Hines Ward taking out Ed Reed and Ray Lewis breaking Rashard Mendenhall’s shoulder.
For the more squeamish fans among us, apprehension is the order of the day when the Ravens come to town. But will it be the same?
Most of the players who classically defined the rivalry are gone. Although Terrell Suggs is still with the team, he is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Hines Ward, Rashard Mendenhall, Ray Rice—all are retired, either voluntarily or not. A substantial number of the players who competed even last season are gone.
The two players who always seemed to be above the fray and yet were very much in the middle of it, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger, are still with us. Or this was true when I started the draft of this article last week. Now, alas, only Joe Flacco remains for the moment.
The punishing defenses which were the hallmark of both teams are at least temporarily in abeyance. The Steelers defense seems to be on the upswing, albeit slowly, but other than the Patriots game hasn’t been tested against an elite offense. Like the Steelers defense, the Ravens defense is dealing with a lot of young players. Will it even feel like Steelers/Ravens anymore?
I rather suspect it will. While many of the players are new, it’s not only an old rivalry but a division one. For the moment the Ravens look uncharacteristically weak, but a team this well coached (yes, I’m gritting my teeth as I say this) and with this good a front office is probably not going to be down for long. The only question is, how late is too late for this year’s team?
According to this article by Chris Chase of USA Today Sports, of 45 teams who began their season 0-2 since 2009 only two have made the playoffs. He was writing about the Seahawks. Interestingly, a different author from USA Today Sports, (Chris Korman), begins his article thusly (or hers—you never know with people named Chris):
Only five teams have [ever] started the NFL season 0-3 and gone on to make the playoffs.
The Baltimore Ravens, who lost a back-and-forth game with Cincinnati Sunday, are now in position to become the sixth.
I find it fascinating the first Chris was prepared to bury the Seahawks, who won the Superbowl just nine months ago and almost made it to the previous one, while the Ravens’ 0-3 record doesn’t seem to disturb the second Chris. Let’s take a look at why:
Head coach John Harbaugh has only missed the postseason once in his first seven seasons. This is one of his most flawed rosters, which was true even before linebacker Terrell Suggs was lost to injury, but getting to 10 wins is not all that far-fetched given the remaining schedule.
- Steve Smith Sr. continues to be better than he should be
- And he could get more help soon [Breshad Perriman finally returned to practice last week]
- Ben Roethlisberger is injured [way to drive a knife into the heart of Steeler Nation, Chris]
- The AFC, beyond the Patriots is…messy
- Harbaugh is better when he can work the underdog narrative [Rebecca bites tongue…]
All interesting points. Chris No. 2 concludes:
The Ravens are perpetually in a bunker, mentally, and for once their standing in the league matches that. Motivation only goes so far, of course. Talent wins far more often than the desire to shame haters. But Harbaugh has an elite quarterback, a workable offensive line and a defense that should be good enough to limit all the teams that don’t employ A.J. Green. If they rally behind his message in the coming days and weeks there’s no reason the Ravens can’t go into December fighting for the last Wild Card spot.
There are those of us who would dispute the “elite quarterback” part, (where’s MaLoR when you need him?) but there’s no doubt most of us would trade the quarterback we take into Thursday’s game straight up for Flacco. I mean no disrespect at all to Michael Vick, but anyone who says they wouldn’t hasn’t looked very closely in recent years.
With opponents this well-known, we don’t really need to go through the history, so let’s get right to the stats.
First, the win-loss record. The Ravens are not nearly so long-lived or storied a franchise as the previous three opponents, but because they are a divisional foe there are still a substantial number of games between the Steelers and Ravens—38, to be precise, going back to 1996. (I’m not going to get into the question as to whether they are really the Browns or not.)
Of those games, the Steelers have the advantage, with an overall .750 win percentage (24 to 18). In the mid-2000s the winner was generally the team who was playing at home. But of late it has been a much more even matchup—since 2010 the Ravens actually have the advantage, having won seven games and lost five.
Is the worm beginning to turn once again? It’s not surprising that a retooled defense would be struggling, but the big surprise thus far has been the Ravens offense. Have a look at the chart and you’ll see what I mean:
The nine games now played since the beginning of this season by the Ravens’ opponents have netted them 2478 passing yards. The Steelers’ opponents have put up 2323. It’s not as different as you might think, mainly because of the Patriots.
However, the Ravens gave up rather more than a third of the total yards. In other words, the average of the three games is 826 yards per game for Ravens opponents, but the Ravens gave up 909 yards—well over the average. The Steelers’ opponents averaged 774 yards per game, and the Steelers gave up 776, which is a wash.
As for the Ravens defense, the Steelers front seven have the edge, but the secondary is behind. Ravens’ CB Jimmy Smith has two interceptions by himself, one of which he ran in 24 yards for a touchdown. However, there is only one other interception for the team, by safety Will Hill.
The Steelers offense would, statistically, have it all over the Ravens, except that everything has changed. It’s hard to imagine keeping up anything like the offensive pace set in the first two games. This levels the playing field a good bit, and very likely tips it Ravens-ward. I foresee several possible scenarios Thursday night:
- The Ravens come out completely crazed, play out of their minds, and injure almost everyone on the Steelers roster, including those on the sidelines and nearby officials. They win by a lot of points.
- The Steelers come out completely crazed, play out of their minds, and bury the Ravens’ season in the much-maligned but un-charred turf of Heinz Field. They win by a comfortable margin.
- The Ravens come out over-confident of their ability to steamroll a Ben-less Steelers team and lose a hard-fought game, 9-13.
- The Steelers come out determined to uphold the honor of their team and play a grim and gritty game, but are just too overmatched. They lose a close game, 12-17.
The actual game will probably be something we can scarcely even imagine. So far it seems the pundits are bailing on the Steelers. There are two questions: is the defense sufficiently improved (and healthy) to hold the Ravens’ offense in check? And can the offense get enough of a running game going to hold off the Ravens’ defense?
To see what the Steelers have to overcome, let’s take a quick look at some of the pivotal members of the Ravens:
Justin Forsett has by far the most rushing yards for the Ravens (124) but the player with the best YPC is Lorenzo Taliaferro (3.4.) I’m eliminating the guys with single carries.
Our old friend Steve Smith Sr. is far and away the most targeted receiver, with 40 targets and 349 yards to show for them. The next best is TE Crockett Gillmore, who is averaging 50.3 yards per game. It also looks like he’s a great deal more likely to hold onto catches than the TEs for the Rams, so the Steelers are going to have to keep an eye on him. ESPN is reporting, though, that he left the Bengals game with a calf issue on Sunday and didn’t practice on Monday. That would be a big break for the Steelers, who can use all the breaks they can get, if he can’t play.
As mentioned above, receiver Breshad Perriman, the Ravens’ 2015 first round pick, was slated to return, but ESPN is reporting he aggravated his knee injury during warm-ups on Sunday, so I would guess we aren’t going to see him, especially as Joe Flacco was commenting how little he has been able to practice with him.
Forsett is also a receiving threat, with 18 targets (but only 12 catches.) The Steelers probably shouldn’t sleep on TE Maxx Williams, either.
On defense their leading tackler is C.J. Mosley, the guy a lot of people thought the Steelers should have taken instead of Ryan Shazier. Assuming Shazier gets healthy soon (the current reports are he has weakness in the stinger arm, which is not good at all) I think it will quiet those folks down. But there is no doubt Mosley has played well for the Ravens. He also has two sacks.
The second highest tackle total is held by CB Jimmy Smith. That guy is a handful. I don’t like the looks of his two interceptions either, and he has a sack.
Elvis Dumervil isn’t as scary when he doesn’t have Terrell Suggs across from him, just as James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley weren’t nearly as productive on their own. He’s still not someone you want to forget about, though.
There are some quality players on the Ravens’ defense, and I don’t think anyone over at the South Side Complex is taking them lightly, from Mike Tomlin on down. I fully expect Tomlin’s weekly opponent assessment to contain the usual superlatives. They say you have to know your enemy, and whatever you may think of Tomlin as a head coach* there is no doubt he knows his enemies, especially when they are from Baltimore.
While the offensive shortcomings may be due to the offensive line, they aren’t giving up sacks. They have allowed two on the season, although I’m assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that the four interceptions Flacco has thrown are due to pressure. Only in their second game, against the Raiders, did any of the Ravens offensive linemen other than Marshal Yanda receive a positive score from Pro Football Focus. Their starting left tackle, Eugene Monroe, has been out since Week 1 with a concussion. He returned to practice yesterday on a limited basis. I’m guessing we won’t see him either, but you never know.
To compare this to the Steelers, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert have graded positively in all three games, and Kelvin Beachum graded well until last Sunday. Neither David DeCastro nor Cody Wallace have received a positive grade so far this season, although Wallace looks much worse than DeCastro.
That’s all the detail you’re going to get for this game so far, although the weekly AFC North stats article will be out on Thursday morning with some more information. Really, it’s anybody’s guess how it is going to come out, but at the moment the preponderance of evidence would seem to favor the Ravens, just because we have little idea what to expect out of a Michael Vick-led offense. I’m hoping we will all be mightily surprised (in a positive way, naturally.)
The only actual prediction I will make is, someone is going to get hurt. I just hope it isn’t someone else as central to the hopes of either team as Terrell Suggs or Ben Roethlisberger.
UPDATE: I got the Pro Football Focus ratings for this week—this is the feature I’m beta-testing. There are some interesting things to be seen.
When the Steelers have the ball:
They still have Roethlisberger in as the QB, because there’s a week’s lag in these sort of updates. (For the Rams game they still had DeAngelo Williams listed as the RB.) So as we already know that part of it goes out the window. If you want to see how they had the Steelers’ offense rated last week check out the Steelers-Rams preview. Where I can I’ll indicate movement, but like an idiot I didn’t write down the player scores in most cases and so I can mostly only tell if there is a category change.
Steelers Base Offense vs. Ravens Base Defense:
All-Pro: Steelers: Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell; Ravens: S Will Hill
Pro Bowl: Steelers: none, now that Ben is out; Ravens: NT Brandon Williams
Above Average Starters: Steelers: Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Heath Miller; Ravens: Jimmy Smith
Average Starter: Steelers: David DeCastro (I believe this is a step up from Below Average last week, but I forgot to include him at all and can’t say for sure,) Marcus Wheaton, Will Johnson; (both Johnson and Wheaton moved up from Below Average;) Ravens: CB Lardarius Webb, ILB Daryl Smith, ILB C.J. Mosley
Backup: Steelers: none; Ravens: DT Lawrence Guy, DT Carl Davis, S Kendrick Lewis
Below Replacement: Steelers: Cody Wallace; Ravens: OLB Courtney Upshaw, OLB Za’Darius Smith
3 Receiver/Nickel package:
Steelers remove Will Johnson, (Average) add Darrius Heyward Bey (Below Average). This looks like a downgrade of course, but the eye test hasn’t said it is so to this point in the season.
Ravens remove Upshaw (below replacement), Davis and Guy (backup) and put in OLB Elvis Dumervil (Pro Bowl), DE Chris Canty and CB Kyle Arrington (Backup)
When the Ravens have the ball:
Ravens Base Offense vs. Steelers Base Defense:
All-Pro: Ravens: G Marshal Yanda; Steelers: none
Pro Bowl: Ravens: G Kelechi Osemele; Steelers: none
Above Average Starter: Ravens: LT Eugene Monroe, RT Ricky Wagner, C Jeremy Zuttah, TE Crockett Gillmore, WR Steve Smith, RB Justin Forsett; Steelers: William Gay, Cameron Heyward
Average Starters: Ravens: QB Joe Flacco, FB Kyle Juszczyk; Steelers: Steve McLendon, Arthur Moats
Backup: Ravens: WR Kamar Aiken; Steelers: Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Mike Mitchell, Will Allen (who moved up from Below Replacement last week)
Below Replacement: Ravens: none; Steelers: Antwan Blake, Jarvis Jones
3 Receiver/Nickel package:
Ravens remove the FB (Average Starter) and replace with WR Marlon Brown (Above Average): Steelers remove McLendon and add CB Ross Cockrell (both average starters.)
I’m not going to add up all the scores like I did last week, because not having Ben changes things too much. But for what it’s worth, I wrote this last week:
Rams base offense: 701.1 Steelers base defense: 743
Steelers three receivers offense: 838.3 Rams nickel defense: 798.4
I chose the base package for the Rams and the three receiver for the Steelers because I assume we are likely to see more of those packages. At any rate, strictly by the numbers it looks like the Steelers should have quite a decent chance to put points on the board (and keep them off).
I’m guessing that had Ben not gone down we would have put more points on the board, and certainly the defense kept the Rams off it. Once the numbers are up for Vick instead of Roethlisberger I’ll try it again and see whether it seems to be at all predictive.
*I hasten to assure anyone who doesn’t know my proclivities that I think Mike Tomlin is a terrific coach. He does have his detractors, though…