Friday, January 2, 2015

Playoff Gameday: Baltimore Ravens

The House That Hines Built
Radio: WDVE and other affiliates

What To Watch For

1. Touchdowns, Not Field Goals

Before this season, the last 5 Steelers-Ravens games had been decided by less than 4 points. Then in a shocking turn of events, both games this season were won by 20 points. The Ravens bested the Steelers 26-6 in Week 2 in Baltimore and the Steelers turned around and delivered a 43-23 thumping in Week 9 in Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger threw for 6 touchdowns. If history is any indication, this will be a close game. As we have seen the past few weeks, the Steelers defense isn't good enough to totally stop teams from driving but they are capable of making plays in the red zone and forcing field goals rather than touchdowns. In the first meeting, the Steelers were unable to convert anything into points while the Ravens knocked through 4 field goals with a long of 30 yards. In the second meeting, the Steelers were incredibly efficient in the red zone, with Ben throwing 3 of his 6 touchdown passes on red zone drives. The second game was also highlighted by big plays - two of the Ravens TDs (including a Jacoby Jones kickoff return) and three of the Steelers TDs came on plays longer than 30 yards. The Ravens will take their shots down the field to Torrey Smith (who is one of the best in the league at drawing pass interference calls) and the Steelers offensive line will have to hold back the Ravens pass rush to give Ben time to work the deep routes.

2. Next Man Up

The players who are not playing in this game will be almost as big a story as the players who are playing. Le'Veon Bell will be out for the Steelers after sustaining a knee injury last week against Cincinnati. The Steelers signed Ben Tate this week and figure to go with a tandem backfield of undrafted free agent Josh Harris, Dri Archer and Tate. That isn't the most imposing lineup but the Ravens have one of the best run defenses in the league, so rushing yards will be hard to come by. More importantly, whoever is back there (including fullback Will Johnson) will need to know their responsibilities in pass protection. Dri Archer blew a blocking assignment last week that turned into an interception when Ben rushed a throw. That simply can't happen in this game. The Steelers backs need to be sound in their blitz pickup, and the coaches need to know to not put people that can't block (Archer) in positions where he will have to pass protect. On the other side, the Ravens get Haloti Ngata back from his 4-game suspension but lose Timmy Jernigan off their defensive line to an ankle injury. Ngata is an absolute monster and is the primary reason why no one can run against the Ravens. The Ravens also lost left tackle Eugene Monroe to an injury, which means that undrafted rookie James Hurst will start opposite James Harrison. Buckle up.

3. The Magic Number

Unlike the Steelers-Ravens showdowns in 2008 and 2010, these are not two dominant defenses with middling offenses. Rather, this game is strength on strength and weakness on weakness. The Steelers Top 10 offense will line up against the Ravens Top 10 defense and the Steelers middle-of-the-pack defense will line up against the Ravens middle-of-the-pack offense. Since losing to the Steelers, the Ravens went 5-2 and are averaging 24.1 points per game, just below their season average of 25.6 per game. On the other hand, the Steelers have gone 8-2 since losing to Cleveland and have averaged 31.2 points per game during that run, an improvement of over 10 points per game over their first 6 games when they went just 3-3. If you're looking for a magic number in this game, it is probably 30. The Ravens have only broken 30 points 4 times this season and the Steelers have only allowed 30+ points 3 times. If the Steelers offense can put 30 on the board, even without much of a running game, they will likely be headed to Denver next week.

4. The Matchup Game

We all know the Dramatis Personae. Some of the players may have changed but the uniforms are still the same. Joe Flacco may or may not be elite, but he has had success dinking and dunking against the Steelers then taking deep shots for Torrey Smith. Two of the biggest badasses in the league, Steve Smith and Antwon Blake will likely go head to head and wind up in a fistfight before this one is over. The Steelers run defense has played better as of late, but the Ravens will use extra tight ends and unbalanced lines to spring room for Justin Forsett. Will  Troy Polamalu play and continue his reign of terror against Joe Flacco? In what could be James Harrison's last game at Heinz Field, he has an opportunity against an undrafted free agent. The Ravens have the 23rd ranked pass defense, but can the Steelers offensive line hold back Ngata, Suggs and Dumervil long enough for Ben to get the ball into the hands of his receivers? We all know Antonio Brown is the most dangerous man on the planet with a football in his hands, but without Le'Veon Bell we will need another skill player to step up. Will it be Markus Wheaton? Martavis Bryant? Heath Miller? The Ravens love to use their tight ends, but can the Steelers new rotation of linebackers be solid enough in coverage to prevent 3rd down conversions?

5. Valar Morghulis

It's the playoffs. It's Baltimore. It's Saturday Night.We are the Kings in the North, but that means nothing if the Ravens defeat us. Period.

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