Nothing like playing your biggest rival in the division twice in a three week span. I am not really sure what the schedulers were thinking when this came up but it could have went one of two ways. The first, and most ideal, would have been that both teams were healthy and this three week stretch would be Steelers/Ravens games that we all have come to know and love. The second situation is that one of the teams was going to have a key injury or two that would really make these games not as exciting.
It turns out that it was a variation of the second scenario but the Steelers are more on the short end with Ben Roethlisberger missing both games. Not good for the Steelers.
Anyways, the Ravens are running away with the division with a 9-2 record while the Steelers still have a (very slim) outside shot to catch them but they are way back at 6-5. Not only are the Steelers having to play without Roethlisberger but they are also playing without backup Byron Leftwich and have to play with Charlie Batch.
No idea what to expect. Here is the preview:
Cleveland 20, Pittsburgh 14
Passing: Batch: 20-34, 199 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: Dwyer: 9 car., 19 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Sanders: 5 rec., 75 yards, 0 TD
Baltimore 16, San Diego 13 (OT)
Passing: Flacco: 30-51, 355 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Rice: 22 car., 97 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Smith: 7 rec., 144 yards, 0 TD
Offense (rank in NFL)
Pittsburgh: 339.8 yards/game (t19th)
Baltimore: 348.2 yards/game (16th)
Pittsburgh: 238.3 yards/game (15th)
Baltimore: 246.5 yards/game (11th)
Pittsburgh: 101.5 yards/game (22nd)
Baltimore: 101.6 yards/game (21st)
Pittsburgh: 21.0 points/game (20th)
Baltimore: 25.7 points/game (9th)
Pittsburgh: 257.2 yards/game (1st)
Baltimore: 372.8 yards/game (24th)
Pittsburgh: 165.7 yards/game (1st)
Baltimore: 244.4 yards/game (23rd)
Pittsburgh: 91.5 yards/game (t5th)
Baltimore: 128.5 yards/game (26th)
Pittsburgh: 19.1 points/game (4th)
Baltimore: 19.9 points/game (7th)
All-Time Record vs. Baltimore: 18-15-0 (3-0 Playoffs)
Last Five Meetings
November 18, 2012 - Baltimore 13, Pittsburgh 10
November 6, 2011 - Baltimore 23, Pittsburgh 20
September 11, 2011 - Baltimore 35, Pittsburgh 7
January 15, 2011 - Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
December 5, 2010 - Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 10
Hit the jump for the rest of the preview
Just as a point of reference some of this is going to be the same as the preview a few weeks ago. I changed a lot of it but if you see some familiar sounding sentences, that is why. I mean it isn't like this was six or seven weeks ago this was two weeks ago. I think you will still appreciate it nonetheless.
The story of Joe Flacco is an interesting one. He is one of those guys who isn't really "great" but he is getting thrown in the "elite" conversation from time to time and I don't really know why. Now, don't get me wrong, Flacco is a good NFL quarterback. I know that first sentence comes off in a bad way but I probably think of Flacco in a better light than most Steelers fans.
The real knock on Flacco is that he is wildly inconsistent and for every good game where he throws for 300 yard and there touchdowns he will have two more games where he throws for 125 yards and two picks and bring the Ravens to near losses. I have no idea what Flacco really is and to be honest I am not sure if he really knows what he is. The fact is that he has played some really good games against the Steelers but the Black and Gold were able to shut him down in the last meeting two weeks ago so hopefully that can carry over this week.
I talk about Flacco being pretty inconsistent and that really reflects in his advanced statistics from the boys over at Football Outsiders. He has a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of 256 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. That puts him right around the middle of the pack among qualified quarterbacks at 17th. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of -1.7% which represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. The simple version of the two is that DYAR represents a player with more total value and DVOA represents a player with more value per play. Flacco ranks 17th in terms of DVOA. As it compares to two weeks ago Flacco has about the same DYAR and has a worse DVOA. Before the game two weeks ago against the Steelers he had a +2.0% DVOA so his play wasn't as stellar as his stat line might have indicated. He also dropped from 13th in the league in DYAR two weeks ago to 17th this week.
This season Flacco has completed just over 60% of his passes for 2,850 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has rebounded nicely from a down year in 2011 where his yard per attempt (YPA) was only 6.66 (worst of career) and he completed 57.6% of his passes (also worst in career). This season his YPA is the best of his career (7.30) and he has a chance to surpass his 2010 total of 25 touchdown passes as he has 14 with five games left. Flacco didn't throw a pick against the Chargers which is probably a reason the Ravens had a chance to make the comeback and he has seven on the season and should come around his career-low for a season which is 12.
On a game-to-game basis Flacco has been a little all over the map. He has five games with a YPA under 7.00 and only there games where he has thrown more than one touchdown pass. He has gone interception free in only five games and the lowest of the lows came in a loss to Houston where Flacco threw for 147 yards on 43 (!) attempts and threw one touchdown and two picks. His QBR (a ranking made from ESPN to rate quarterbacks on a scale of 100 where 50 is average) was 0.3. Yea, that bad. But, with the bad comes the good which came in week nine when he went 21-of-33 for 341 yards, three touchdowns and an interception and racked up a 91.6 QBR. The previous two games however, against the Steelers and the Chargers, he has been pretty average with a YPA of 5.13 against the Steelers and a 6.96 average against the Chargers and logged a QBR of under 41 in both games.
I think it is pretty applicable to look at the previous game against the Steelers here when we look at Flacco. A lot of times you really can't take that too seriously because division games usually are spread out over the season but with the Steelers and Ravens both playing each other twice in a three week span you can't imagine there is going to be too much change. The Steelers defense held the Ravens passing game in check as Flacco threw for only 164 yards on 32 attempts and didn't throw a single touchdown pass. Granted, he didn't throw any interceptions but the defense was able to get after Flacco and give the hampered offense a chance to win. I talked a little above about how Flacco likes to push the ball down the field but he had a big problem in week ten only completing 2-of-8 passes that traveled 15 yards or more in the air and had three of those passes defended (via ESPN Stats & Information).
One more thing that we really need to focus on about Flacco is how good he is when he plays at home. Over his career he is 32-5 when playing in Baltimore and only 21-17 when playing on the road. He has a much better completion percentage (62% - 59.5%) and a much better TD/INT ratio (49/22 - 45/31) playing in Baltimore. His 7.83 YPA is outstanding in Baltimore while it is a below average 6.45 on the road and all six of his career rushing touchdowns have come at home. I know players prefer playing at home but the home/road splits for Flacco are pretty remarkable. Expect his best on Sunday afternoon.
The Ravens haven't been very good at running the football this year if you look at the raw numbers but they have one of the most talented running backs in the league in Ray Rice. The Ravens actually rank sixth in the league with a 8.7% DVOA in the rushing attack and while they might not pound the football like some in Baltimore might want them to they are still very effective. As a team they average 4.0 yards per carry and Rice leads the pack with a 4.3 yard per carry average with 794 yards on 186 carries with seven touchdowns.
Last season Rice was outstanding gaining 1,364 yards and a 4.7 rushing averaging and he is somewhat on that pace this season if he can get to the 291 carries that he did last season. It has been really interesting, and baffling, to the way that the Ravens use Rice as some games it doesn't seem like they know he is still on the team. He only touched the ball 13 times in a week nine win against the Raiders and in the game against the Texans he touched the ball only nine times. He also has only rushed for over 100 yards twice on the season.
The one place that Rice is very effective, and where he can really hurt the Steelers, is in the passing game. So far this season he has 48 catches for 404 yards and is the teams fourth leading receiver. Last week against the Chargers he was probably the most important receiver as he made eight catches for 67 yards and none was bigger than the 29 yard catch and run he had on a 4th-and-29 at the end of the game that set up the game tying field goal in the final minute and a half.
Rice ranks very highly in the advanced statistics with the seventh best DYAR (154) and the fourth-best DVOA (12.0%) and while those number are good among the running back ranks they took a somewhat of a hit from a few weeks ago. Rice had better than a 19% DVOA after nine weeks. Rice is truly one of the most valuable players on the field at all times and if the Steelers don't play to that then they could get beat badly.
As I talk about Rice being able to hurt the Steelers they did a really nice job against him in week ten. He carried the ball 20 times for only 40 yards which was his lowest yard per carry average of the season. He did catch five passes for 53 yards but any time you can hold Rice under 50 yards rushing and keep him out of the end zone you are going to have a great chance to win. Rice's longest rush of the day a few weeks ago was eight yards. I will take that again please.
Outside of Rice the Ravens turn to Bernard Pierce who has 213 yards on 51 carries and a touchdown in his rookie season out of Temple where he was a 1,481 yard rusher last season on 273 attempts (5.4 ypc). Pierce really hasn't been too involved in any game as he will typically get three to five carries in the game and get around 20 yards. He only had two carries for eight yards against the Steelers a few weeks ago and had nine carries for 34 yards last week against the Chargers. He isn't really a third down back as he only has three catches on the season but I wouldn't expect the Ravens to have a big need for a third down back as Rice is a complete player and can be an every down back with his pass catching abilities.
The two main factors in the passing game couldn't be more different players in Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. Smith leads the team with 699 yards on 39 catches while Boldin is right behind him with 669 yards on 50 catches and both of those receivers get their numbers in different ways as you can see by the yard per catch average. Smith has been able to find the end zone seven times while Boldin hasn’t scored nearly as much as he would like to by only scoring once. While Smith is the big hitting target Boldin actually isn’t far behind him in catches of 20 yards or more. Smith has 13 catches of 20 yards or more while Boldin is right behind with 12 of those types of catches.
As you can imagine Smith is the deep ball target for Flacco and he has speed to burn. I wouldn't necessarily put him in the category of Mike Wallace (in terms of speed) but he really isn't that far off. Boldin is getting a little long in the tooth and his best days are behind him but he can still be a good possession receiver when Flacco needs to dump it down if Smith isn't out there for the deep ball. You can see that Flacco uses that to a tee as Boldin has the most receptions on the team and is only behind Rice in yards after the catch and leads the team with 32 first down catches.
Smith, as you can imagine, is the higher ranked of the two receivers by a pretty significant margin. He is 27th in the league with a 128 DYAR but is only 31st with a 6.4% DVOA. On the other hand Boldin is a little lower on the charts ranking 49th with a DYAR of 54 and 57th with a -4.3% DVOA. The one big difference between the two receivers is the catch rate which measures the number of passes to the receiver that is completed. Boldin has a very repeatable catch rate of 60% while Smith is around 46%. A lot of that probably has to do with the type of receiver they are but still interesting nonetheless. If you paid attention to the preview from a few weeks ago the rankings of both Smith and Boldin have dropped a substantial bit with Smith’s DVOA reaching over 12.0% while Boldin was a positive DVOA player before the week ten game against the Steelers.
Smith hasn't been overly effective recently as he has only two 100 yard receiving days and the first came way back on September 23 while the second one was last week with a seven catch, 144 yard day against the Chargers. Over the last seven games Smith has games where he has caught 38, 24, 41, 46, 67, seven and 144 yards. Smith was completely taken out of the football game against the Steelers as he had only one catch for seven yards and while there was some help over the top Ike Taylor really made him a moot point on the field.
Boldin actually was pretty effective against the Steelers a few weeks ago as he was targeted 12 times and made eight catches for 79 yards. He didn’t score a touchdown but he was the main target for the team and I would expect that he would be doing the same thing this week. The big advantage that Boldin has over defensive backs is that he is extremely physical and can create separation which is why he is still a viable option for Flacco, especially on third downs.
The Ravens also have been moving the New England Patriots way with tight ends utilizing a pair of young tight ends to help out the passing attack. Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are the two young tight ends and after having some pretty good years in 2011 they haven't been playing so great this year. Both are well below replacement as Pitta has a DVOA of -7.6% and Dickson is at -27.7% with Pitta ranking 32nd and Dickson ranking 46th. Not good when those rankings are among qualified tight ends.
Pitta has been the more productive of the two catching 44 passes for 423 yards and four touchdowns while Dickson has 14 catches for 152 yards but has been hampered with some injuries. Dickson is trying to recover from a knee injury that held him out of the Chargers game last week after only making a pair of catches against the Steelers two weeks ago. Pitta wasn’t productive as he only had a single catch for five yards in the week ten game and while the Steelers have had trouble in the pass against tight ends they did an outstanding job against two athletic tight ends from Baltimore.
A guy to keep your eye on would be Jacoby Jones. The Ravens picked him up after he left the Texans last season and he has been an infusion of talent even if he really doesn't have the numbers in the receiving game. He has 22 catches for 307 yards and a touchdown but more importantly has seven catches of 20 yards or more. He is a nice option as the number three receiver and adds much to the return game. Jones all but won the week ten game against the Steelers when he took a punt back 63 yards for a touchdown that was the only touchdown for the Ravens in the game. He is averaging almost 36 yards per return on kickoffs with a pair of touchdowns and added the aforementioned punt return touchdown while averaging 11.0 yards per return on punts. You can’t really rely on getting a touchdown from your return game every week but when you do it is a huge boost and the main reason the Ravens beat the Steelers the first time around.
From left to right the Ravens read Michael Oher, Bobbie Williams, Matt Birk, Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele. The Ravens have been pretty consistent with their offensive line over the years and yet it is still a source of some problems in both pass protection. Osemele is the young buck of the group as he is a rookie out of Iowa State and then the next in the totem pole is Oher who is in his fourth season. Both Williams and Birk have over ten years of experience while Yanda is in his sixth season and reminds me of Yoda every time I see his name.
The Ravens have been pretty outstanding this season in the running game as their running backs are averaging 4.21yards per carry and moreover their offensive line has been able to put up a 4.28 adjusted line yards (ALY) which is the second best in the league.
ALY takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:
Losses: 120% value
0-4 Yards: 100% value
5-10 Yards: 50% value
11+ Yards: 0% value
These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.
The Ravens have taken a hit in their running game in some aspects as it fell from tenth in the league two weeks ago to 19th in power success which is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. The Ravens are converting those opportunities at a 61% clip while they were at a 68% conversion rate after week nine. They are still one of the best in the NFL in stuffed percentage which is the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. They are only getting stuffed 16% of the time so while every running play isn't going to work the line is able to hold off the defense so plays aren't getting blown up in the backfield and they are at least getting some yardage. That percentage ranks third in the league even though that is up a little bit from the 14% rating they had before the first Pittsburgh game.
Just as the Steelers have had success in the running game between the tackles the Ravens have been pretty good at that themselves. When running up the middle or off the guards the Ravens have a 4.44 ALY which is ninth best in the league. They are even better when they run off the right tackle where they have a 4.69 ALY that is fifth best in the entire league. They aren't as good off the left tackle with only a 3.98 ALY (19th in NFL). They have a bit of a split in success rushing to the edges where they rank 11th when running off the right end but are one of the worst teams at running to the left end as they rank 25th in the league.
As you can imagine the Ravens like to run to their strength as they have run 55% of their 250 running back carries up the middle or off the guards. They have run 16% of the time off the right tackle and 12% off the left tackle. They are not as talented of a team running off the edges and they only combined 17% of their runs go off the left or right end. Those numbers are very similar to what they did before the last game against the Steelers when I did this preview and from the little I got to watch of the game it seemed as if the Ravens wanted to stay in between the tackles even if they weren’t having any success.
As I talked about before the offensive line hasn't been that great at protecting Flacco in the past as they have been suspect against the rush and while they aren't great this year they aren't the worst either. They have given up 26 sacks so far this season and have an adjusted sack rate of 6.6% which is 17th best in the league and for comparative purposes the Steelers are ranked 15th in the league with a 6.0% adjusted sack rate. Adjusted Sack Rate gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent and turns that in to a percentage. Again, the Steelers have had success in the past in getting to Flacco and if they want to have a chance with all the injuries they have then they need to exploit this problem. The Steelers sacked Flacco twice and hit him four other times and while that doesn’t seem great I think the pressure was really getting to him and not giving him a chance to push the ball down the field like he would have liked to.
For much of the recent history the Steelers/Ravens games have been about one thing: defense. Both defense have been two of the best in the NFL for some time and the slug it out, low scoring games were some of the staples that you knew you were going to get at least two times a year. This year, and last year, that thought has slipped a little as both teams have had much better offenses and the defenses have slipped down the pack a little bit.
In raw numbers Baltimore ranks near the bottom of the league in most categories and the numbers over at Football Outsiders seem to back that up as well, although they favor them a little better. Overall the Baltimore defense ranks out with a 2.7% DVOA which is 22nd in the league (remember, negative numbers represent good defense) which is right below the New England defense and right above the Eagles defense. The Ravens rank 14th against the pass with a 2.9% DVOA.
Against the top receiver from opposing teams the Ravens rank 24th in the league with an 14.3% DVOA against and giving up almost 80 yards per game and with Antonio Brown looking more and more like he is coming back this could be a very good thing. They are worst in the league against the number two receiver where they give up a 37.9% DVOA. This might be the better target as before with Brown out they had to rely on an inconsistent Mike Wallace but now they can slide him or Emmanuel Sanders down to the number two receiver and look for much more favorable matchups. They are actually pretty good against running backs catching passes with a -17.0% DVOA (sixth in league) but when that is what you are far and away best at you are not going to be very good at covering the pass and the Steelers are going to need to take advantage of that if they want a fighting chance to win this football game.
In the same way we talk about the ineffectiveness of the Ravens being able to cover the pass you could really talk about their inability to get after the quarterback as a reason why they might struggle in the secondary. A staple of the Baltimore defense is the ability to get to the quarterback and strike fear in the offensive line but with the early injury to Terrell Suggs the Ravens only rank 14th with a 6.7% adjusted sack rate (25 sacks) which is exactly the same place the Steelers are in. It must be state that in the last two games (against the Steelers and Chargers) the Ravens have had nine sacks and moved up from a 6.0% adjusted sack rate before the first Pittsburgh game so they might be ramping up at the right time.
The Ravens have been getting gashed in the run game this season to the tune of 129 yards per game and they rank 25th in the league with a 2.4% DVOA against the run. So far this season they are allowing a 4.10 yard per carry average to opposing running backs but even worse is that the defensive line hasn't been able to make the plays as they have given up a 4.38 ALY which is 28th best in the league. The Ravens rank 31st in the league in power success against at 79% and they rank dead last with a 13% stuffed percentage. The Ravens are letting running backs get to the second level and the defensive line hasn't been getting penetration in the backfield. Just not good overall on the run prevention level, something you rarely see from a Ravens team.
Baltimore is able to be beat nearly anywhere along their defensive line. The Steelers have had success running the football between the tackles and the Ravens have been giving up huge chunks of yards in that area. They rank 28th in the league giving up a 4.50 ALY when teams run up the middle or off the guard while they 27th when teams run off the offensive right tackle and 22nd when teams run off the offensive left tackle. Just not good.
On the player side of the equation much of the Ravens are the same, but there have been some significant injuries that have really tore through the heart of the defense. Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith are out for the game as is Ray Lewis with a torn triceps muscle. Suggs is back on the field and has a pair of sacks on the season but with the injury situation on the Steelers offensive line he could become a huge problem real quick.
Bernard Pollard leads the team with 82 total tackles and has a pair of sacks and an interception to go along with his stat line. Jameel McClain has 66 total tackles and is a pretty solid piece of the teams linebacking core. Ed Reed has been battling injuries all season but has a ten passes defended and three interceptions while Haloti Ngata has also been battling injuries but has 40 tackles and four sacks. Paul Kruger has filled in nicely this season with a team-best 5.5 sacks (Dannell Ellerbe also has 4.5 sacks) and 31 tackles. While Suggs is the guy that everyone is going to be focusing on Kruger is just as much of a problem off the edge and while nobody is going to confuse Cary Williams for a great defensive back he has a team-best 11 passes defended and four interceptions.
-To be quite honest with you have I have no idea what is going to happen in this game. The Steelers are in a bad way with some injuries that the Steelers are still dealing with, especially at the quarterback position. Charlie Batch will once again get the start for the Steelers after a pretty brutal game last week in a loss to the Browns. Batch doesn't have a lot of experience in his time as a Steeler and if he throws the ball like he did last week, and the Steelers don't run the ball better, then the Black and Gold are going to be in for a world of hurt on Sunday afternoon.
-The offensive line is going to be very interesting to watch and see who actually suits up. Willie Colon was out of last week's game with a bad knee and at the beginning of the week and Mike Tomlin seemed to think he was going to be able to play at the beginning of the week but it looks like he is going to be questionable for the game and it is really going to be a toss up if he plays. This is not good news. Because of this the Steelers have had to play with the line combinations during practice where Maurkice Pouncey was playing some guard and Doug Legursky was playing center. This is also because Mike Adams is out with a pretty significant ankle injury and Kelvin Beachum is going to have to play right tackle. So, if Colon doesn't go then the line could be amazingly thin. David DeCastro could play but he still ins't 100% from his injury and although he could get some snaps he isn't ready to go for a full game. That doesn't even include that he has zero experience outside of a preseason game. Yikes.
-A huge problem last week was the running game. Now, I could talk about the excessive amount of fumbles that the Steelers had but that wouldn't really get to the underlying cause of the shoddy run game. The main reason, in my eyes, that the run game was so bad was the ineffectiveness of the Steelers to put the ball in the air and make anything happen. On first down the Browns knew that the Steelers were going to run and in turn were able to load the box and stuff the run and force the Steelers in a second and third and long situation where they couldn't make a play. If the Steelers can have any sort of success throwing the football, even if that is just a dink and dunk passing game, that will open up some of the running game and play action which would be huge.
-The Steelers do have a little bit of good news in that they will be getting back Antonio Brown and Troy Polomalu after both have missed varying degrees of playing time. I wouldn't expect either to be back in game shape or play a ton of snaps but the additions will be helpful, especially with Brown. The Steelers have really hurt in pass catching without Brown and even though Batch was pretty bad last week and Leftwich wasn't good the week before (albeit injured) the addition of Brown will be a big pick me up.
-The Steelers are going to have to get better on third down. With Roethlisberger in the lineup the Steelers were the best team in the league at converting on third down at about 52%. While they still rank fourth in the league at 45% they are only converting at a 29% clip in the last three games which includes the Kansas City game where Roethlisberger missed the entire second half of the game. It isn't going to be easy but the Steelers have to get something done on third down. Brown is going to be a huge help as he gets a ton of third down targets and is outstanding with the ball in his hand but it is going to take a full team effort to improve it. The running game is going to have to get them into third and manageable situations, the line is going to have to give time, Batch (or whoever plays quarterback) is going to have to make the right read and the receivers are going to have to get open when they throw on third down and get some yards after the catch.
-The Ravens are unreal good at home. They are a pretty poor road team but for as bad as they can be on the road they are much better at home. They are 5-0 at home so far this season and have scored 44, 31, 23, 31 and 55 points at home. They are deadly good and if the Steelers want to win they will probably have to score at least one defensive or special teams touchdown.
PREDICTION - If you don't have a good feeling about this game you aren't alone. A loss here would drop the Steelers to 6-6 on the season but they would still be in a pretty good spot for the playoffs considering they have a game with the Chargers and Bengals left in the season. If Ben was playing then I think the Steelers could get the better of the Ravens but when Baltimore is playing at home they are a completely different team. In my years of writing on this blog I have exclusively picked the Steelers to win. I can't do that this time. I don't think the Ravens are a particularly great team and I think they are not as good as their 9-2 record but they are winning games. They will do so again on Sunday. Ravens 27, Steelers 13.