NFL Playoff Preview: Ravens at Steelers
Wild Card weekend preview of the Saturday night game. The Ravens have never won a playoff game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in the history of the franchise, what could make this Saturday night different? Find out below.
|Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) – #3 seed AFC playoffs
|Total Offense Rank||2nd|
|Total Defense Rank||18th|
|Scoring Defense Rank (pts/gm)||18th – (23)|
|Record Last 5 games||4-1|
|Record against Playoff Teams||5-1|
At Cincinnati (week 14) Steelers 42 – Bengals 21
Player to watch: Linebacker, James Harrison
James Harrison, while being known as an NFL Hitman, and a guy who spends an obscene of money just to keep his body healthy throughout the year, is truly one of the best players over the last 10 years. Those who have not watched the Steelers this year would most likely not believe that a 36-year-old linebacker is the most important piece to this Steelers defense, but it is true.
James Harrison and his 405-lb bench press reps have been pivotal this season in disrupting teams’ offensive rhythms. When he has been healthy this season, he has been the epitome of the term “man strength”. Using his powerful frame, built up over 36 years, Harrison has helped show the Steelers young linebackers and defensive lineman what it means to bull rush and disrupt at the line of scrimmage. It also seems that his work ethic, passion, and football lessons both on and off the field have jumped started a Steelers defensive revival. Although he has only played in eleven games this season and only started in three, when he is healthy and playing Harrison is one of the best defensive players on the field. The undrafted, potential hall of famer, who came out of retirement this season to help out a young Pittsburgh Steelers linebacking corps, has more than fulfilled his end of the bargain and will be key to a Steelers victory for all of those reasons.
Analysis: The Steelers are in a tough spot this weekend against the Ravens due to Le’Veon Bell being out because of a hyper extended knee. All season long he has been one of the most important pieces of their offense, accounting for over 2,200 yards from scrimmage. Bell was nearly on the field for every snap this season, especially after cutting LeGarrette Blount, and is patient and electric on nearly every play. Luckily for the Steelers, they also have one of the most talented wide receivers on their team in Antonio Brown, who will be playing. Antonio Brown led the NFL in receiving yards this season with 1,698, and along with Bell is one of the main reasons this offense is so explosive and efficient. He along with other speedy Steelers wide receivers, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant, will most likely be on the field every play to make up for the loss.
It will be important for the Steelers to keep the Ravens defense on the field, and to catch them off guard with their speed. The Ravens have one of the most banged up secondaries in the NFL this season, having lost five starters to injury. Running back Dri Archer could play a role in that strategy, as he was one of the fastest running backs at the NFL combine running an official 4.26 40-yard dash time.
Having watched the game Sunday night against the Bengals, it seems like undrafted rookie running back Josh Harris will get the bulk of the carries. When you watch him run, he almost looks like a James Harrison junior the way his muscles are too big for his body. On the Steelers’ roster, Harris is listed at 5’11” 210 pounds, but he looks closer to 220 pounds when he is one the field. In any case, Harris is a fast player with a bowling ball body that could do some damage if the Ravens aren’t prepared for him.
Maybe the best part of the Steelers overall this season has been the offensive line play. Bell did not get all of those yards by himself and center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro have the most to do with that. Those two men are the unsung heroes of the pocket as well, giving Ben Roethlisberger time to let routes develop down field and putting linebackers on their backs allowing Bell to break big runs. The Ravens defensive line against the Steelers o-line will be a great strength versus strength matchup.
If the Steelers can win both lines of scrimmage with their offensive line’s strength, and James Harrison’s “man strength” on defense, it’ll keep Baltimore’s offense off the field and allow Pittsburgh to take advantage of their speedy receivers on the outside. If the Steelers can successfully do that, they have a great chance to make it to the divisional round.
|Baltimore Ravens (10-6) – #6 seed AFC playoffs
|Total Offense Rank||12th|
|Total Defense Rank||8th|
|Scoring Defense Rank (pts/gm)||6th – (18.9)|
|Record Last 5 games||3-2|
|Record against Playoff Teams||2-4|
Vs. Steelers (week 2) Steelers 06 – Ravens 26
Player to watch: Ravens defensive backs
As mentioned above, the Ravens have lost five defensive backs to injured reserve this season. Only one Ravens cornerback playing on Saturday had signed with the team before the season started. What bodes well for this group is that the Ravens have shut down the Steelers once this season in a Monday night game in Baltimore, so coaches should have experiencing scheming against this Todd Haley offense.
Jimmy Smith played a huge part in shutting down Antonio Brown for much of that game, and Martavis Bryant hadn’t started playing yet. This Sunday with Le’Veon Bell out, there will be even more pressure on the Ravens’ secondary to come up with some big plays against a Steelers team that will be looking to throw. The tall task of covering Pittsburgh’s speedy receivers will be on Antoine Cason, Rashaan Melvin, and veteran Lardarius Webb. Lardarius Webb has come up big for the Ravens in the playoffs before, having shutdown Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship in 2012. He is finally back to full strength after fighting back spasm throughout the season, and even recorded his first interception in week 17.
The Ravens safeties will have to play deeper than the deepest player to not allow anyone behind them in this game. The bend but do not break philosophy could come in handy this weekend in order to prevent long touchdowns. Last weekend the Bengals deployed, and had success using, a 2-deep man coverage against the Steelers. They put athlete and length on athlete while using linebacker stunts up front to confuse the tackles and guards. The Ravens will have the personnel to slow down the Steelers, but will need to execute flawlessly and be ready from the word go if they want to win this position battle.
Analysis: The Ravens are one of the more confusing teams in the league this season. They have great statistics, they consistently score 25 points per game, and yet somehow have nearly zero consistency during games. On film, they are one of the more annoying teams to watch because it always feels like they could be doing more with their drives. They are one of the lowest ranked teams in the league in terms of three-and-outs on offense, which means they are putting drives together, yet it looks like they stall every other play. One thing on tape that is always true is that the Ravens play better in the fourth quarter.
In order to win in the playoffs and against a very tough and improved Steelers team, the Ravens will need to play like every quarter is the fourth quarter, like every quarter matters to them. One thing that cannot be debated about the Ravens is that Joe Flacco is not an emotional leader, he is Joe Cool and plays well under pressure, but he needs the pressure in order to play and motivate. In the fourth quarter last Sunday against the Browns, when the Ravens were down 6-10 and in need of a win to get into the playoffs, Flacco started moving around in the pocket throwing passes with some heat and making great reads down the field. Throughout three quarters, it was like the guy didn’t have a pulse. He would play well, but not with the same urgency as when he stepped up and threw a 53-yard bomb to Torrey Smith and followed it up with a 16-yard laser throw to him in the endzone. Those two plays took 51 seconds on Sunday and he willed them to happen. Ray Lewis isn’t coming back to give rousing speeches and more often than not it feels like that is what this team is waiting for.
The Ravens have the tools on offense to compete with the Steelers. The Steelers may have younger speed, but the Ravens have speed and powerful receivers on offense. Much in the same way that the Steelers should try and keep the ball away from Joe Flacco and, running back, Justin Forsett, the Ravens really need to play keep away from Big Ben and Antonio Brown. They can do that by utilizing the running game and catching the Steelers over pursuing on cut back runs. The Steelers have a tendency to over pursue on play actions and misdirection runs. If the Ravens can establish a decent run game, they can run some play action bootleg plays and get some receivers open down the field.
The most important thing the Ravens need to do is take advantage in the Red Zone. The Ravens players all say that they live for the playoffs, and they will need to prove it by dominating the line of scrimmage in the red zone on Saturday. Baltimore and Pittsburgh rank 19th and 18th, respectively, in red zone efficiency this season scoring on roughly half of their tries. The Ravens will have to do better and not settle for field goals in order to win this game.
Ravens tight ends have always been a huge factor for Flacco in the playoffs. The Ravens have struggled to get a consistent rapport going between Flacco and his tight ends ever since Dennis Pitta went down with a hip injury, look for the Ravens to utilize the fullback Kyle Juszczyk on a few special plays, along with tight end Owen Daniels and tall rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore in the red zone.
Also, Ravens receiver Steve Smith, Sr. has played in nine playoff games averaging nearly 100-yards per game and a touchdown. Look for Smith, Sr., who has been struggling with drops this season, to play well against some of the young Steelers corners.
Ravens 27 - Steelers 24