Friday, November 16, 2012

Steelers Game Day 10 Preview - vs. Baltimore Ravens

Right after the kick went through and the Steelers beat the Chiefs in overtime the strong notion about Steelers fans was that it was Ravens week. Year in and year out this is a prime time, put on your big boy pants, type of game and as a fan you love watching this.

Neither team likes each other and both teams want to beat each other in the worst way. The Bengals have had some (marginal) success in the AFC North and the Browns are starting to get some talent but the fact still remains that the AFC North, and possible first round playoff bye, runs through either Baltimore or Pittsburgh. Until one of those two other teams can prove otherwise this is how it works in the AFC North and this is the first of two match up to decide who will claim the title . Buckle up.

No more talk needed. Lets get this preview rolling.


The stats:


Last Week:

Pittsburgh 16, Kansas City 13 (OT)
Passing: Roethlisberger: 9-18, 84 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Dwyer: 19 car., 56 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Miller: 4 rec., 47 yards, 0 TD

Baltimore 55, Oakland 20
Passing: Flacco: 21-33, 341 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Rice: 13 car., 35 yards, 1 TD
Receiving: Pitta: 5 rec., 67 yards, 1 TD


Offense (rank in NFL)

Total Offense
Pittsburgh: 354.1 yards/game (t16th)
Baltimore: 354.1 yards/game (t16th)

Passing
Pittsburgh: 250.3 yards/game (11th)
Baltimore: 249.2 yards/game (13th)

Rushing
Pittsburgh: 103.8 yards/game (21st)
Baltimore: 104.9 yards/game (20th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 23.0 points/game (18th)
Baltimore: 28.2 points/game (4th)


Defense

Total Defense
Pittsburgh: 265.7 yards/game (1st)
Baltimore: 390.2 yards/game (27th)

Pass
Pittsburgh: 171.1 yards/game (1st)
Baltimore: 258.2 yards/game (26th)

Rush
Pittsburgh: 94.6 yards/game (6th)
Baltimore: 132.0 yards/game (26th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 19.7 points/game (7th)
Baltimore: 21.8 points/game (13th)

All-Time Record vs. Baltimore: 18-14-0 (3-0 Playoffs)

Last Five Meetings
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
October 3, 2010 - Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 14

Hit the jump for the rest of the preview





Quarterback



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 and with the way the Steelers injury situation is shaping up it might not take Flacco's best.

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 -285 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 13th. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of 2.0% 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. Manning ranks seventh in terms of DVOA. Flacco is a little worse in his DVOA as he ranks 14th in the league but it just really shows that he has been just a little bit over average in the grand scheme of the season. Ben Roethlisberger, for comparison, has a DVOA of 18.5% which puts him at sixth in the league. 0.0% is the break even point and to compare him to that he would probably be in Andy Dalton territory as his DVOA is 0.6% and he also has a similar DYAR of 255.

This season Flacco has completed just over 60% of his passes for 2,331 yards and 13 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 (7.54) and he has a chance to surpass his 2010 total of 25 touchdown passes. Flacco hasn't been perfect though as he has thrown a few more interceptions than usual with seven in nine games after only throwing 12 the year before.

On a game-to-game basis Flacco has been a little all over the map. He has four 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 three 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 was last week when he went 21-of-33 for 341 yards, three touchdowns and an interception and racked up a 91.6 QBR.

Over his career Flacco has been pretty good in the regular season against the Steelers. He has eight starts where he is an even 4-4 but has completed only 56% of his passes while throwing 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. It might not seem great but some of his better performances came last year against the Steelers when the Ravens swept the Black and Gold that finished with a game winning drive after a 28/47 day where he threw for 300 yards and a touchdown and didn't turn the ball over. When you look at games including playoffs (where Flacco has struggled against the Steelers) he is 4-6 with a 55% completion percentage, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions.


Running Back


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 third in the league with a 14.5% 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 4.3 yards per carry and Rice leads the pack with a 4.6 yard per carry average with 657 yards on 144 carries with seven touchdowns.

Last season Rice was outstanding gaining 1,364 yards and a 4.7 rushing averaging and he is right 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 last week 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 but has been playing strong with four touchdown runs in the last four games.

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 35 catches for 284 yards. He only has nine catches for 51 yards in the past three games but all it takes is one catch and run to open up the Ravens offense and he is a one of a kind type of back that can make it happen.

Rice ranks very highly in the advanced statistics with the sixth best DYAR (162) and the fourth best DVOA (19.5%). 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 are going to get tortched. In seven regular season games against the Steelers Rice has posted a 4.1 yard per carry average and has a very strong yard per catch average of 10.7 yards.

Outside of Rice the Ravens turn to Bernard Pierce who has 171 yards on 40 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 invoked in any game as he will typically get three to five carries in the game and get around 20 yards. He isn't really a third down back as he only has a pair of 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.

Receivers


The Ravens have done a pretty nice job of putting together a receiving core that can compliment the big arm that Flacco has and they have done that both through free agency and through the draft.

The two main factors in the passing game couldn't be more different players in Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. Both Smith and Boldin have 548 receiving yards but that is really all that is similar between the two. Smith is the big hitting target with all that yardage on only 31 catches for seven touchdowns. His yard per catch average is 17.7 which is four yards farther than Boldin who has the 548 yards on 40 catches with only one touchdown. Both receivers have ten catches of 20 yards or more.

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 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.

Smith, as you can imagine, is the higher ranked of the two receivers by a pretty significant margin. He is 21st in the league with a 127 DYAR and is 20th with a 12.8% DVOA. On the other hand Boldin is a little lower on the charts ranking 40th in both DYAR (72) and DVOA (2.2%) which leaves Boldin a little closer to the average receiver than someone who at one point could be the number one. 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 63% while Smith is around 48%. A lot of that probably has to do with the type of receiver they are but still interesting nonetheless.

Smith hasn't been overly effective recently as he has only one 100 yard receiving day and that came way back on September 23. Over the last five games the garages for Smith is 38, 24, 41, 46 and 67 and only has a long of 47 which came in a blowout win over the Raiders. Take the Raiders game away and his long in the four game prior was only 26 yards.

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 gray this year. Both are well below replacement as Pitta has a DVOA of -3.1% and Dickson is at -19.1% which are both around 30th in the league. Not good when those rankings are among qualified tight ends.

Pitta has been the more productive of the two catching 37 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns while Dickson has 12 catches for 144 yards but has been hampered with some injuries.

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 15 catches for 256 yards and a touchdown but more importantly has six catches of 20 yards or more. He is a nice option as the number three receiver and adds much to the return game. Jones is coming of an AFC Special Teams Player of the Week award and so far has a ridiculous 38.6 yard return average on 14 kickoff returns and an 8.8 return average on punts on 13 returns. He is very dangerous there.

Offensive Line










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 poll 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 remands be 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 4.43 yards per carry and moreover their offensive line has been able to put up a 4.52 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 done a pretty nice job in other areas also as they rank tenth in the NFL in power success which is the ercentage 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 68% clip. They are also 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 14% 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.

Just as the Steelers have had success in the running game between the tackles the Ravens have been just as good and when I say that I mean one of the best in the league. When running up the middle or off the guards the Ravens have a 4.68 ALY which is fifth best in the league. They are even better when they run off the right tackle where they have nearly a 5.00 ALY that is third best in the entire league. They aren't as good off the left tackle with only a 4.52 ALY (10th in NFL) but that is much better than the 3.87 ALY that is league average.

As you can imagine the Ravens like to run to their strength as they have run 56% of their 197 running back carries up the middle or off the guards. They have run 15% of the time off the right tackle and 13% off the left tackle. They are not as talented of a team running off the edges and they only combined 15% of their runs go off the left or right end. If the Steelers want to make the Ravens one diminutional I think we know what they are going to have to do.

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 19 sacks so far this season and have an adjusted sack rate of 6.2% which is 15th best in the league and only one spot better than the Steelers. 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.

Defense


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 3.9% DVOA which is 20th in the league (remember, negative numbers represent good defense) which is one spot worse than the Steelers who post a 2.3% DVOA and rank 19th. The Ravens rank 16th against the pass with a 7.9% DVOA and really have struggled in all aspects. That is not going to be getting any better as we learned that Jimmy Smith will miss this week (and more) after he had surgery to fix a sports hernia after he was the fill in after the Ravens lost top corner Ladarius Webb with a blown out knee earlier in the season.

Against the top receiver from opposing teams the Ravens rank 25th in the league with an 18% DVOA against and giving up almost 90 yards per game. Hello Mike Wallace. They are worst in the league against the number two receiver where they give up a 47.0% DVOA. Hello Emmanuel Sanders. They are just league average against tight ends (0.6% DVOA) giving up around 68 yards per game. They are actually pretty good against running backs catching passes with a -14.8% DVOA (eighth 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 19th with a 6.0% adjusted sack rate (16 sacks) which is exactly the same place the Steelers are in.

The Ravens have been getting gashed in the run game this season to the tune of 132 yards per game and they rank 23rd in the league with a -0.2% DVOA against the run. So far this season they are allowing a 4.14 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 4.41 ALY which is 28th best in the league. The Ravens rank 31st in the league in power success against at 83% 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 4.61 ALY when teams run up the middle or off the guard while they 25th when teams run off the offensive right tackle and 21st when teams run off the offensive left tackle. Just not good.

On the player side of the equation much of the Ravens is the same, but there have been some significant injuries that have really tore through the heart of the defense. I touched on this earlier but corners Webb and Smith are out for the game as is Ray Lewis. Suggs is back on the field but he really hasn't been too effective with only one sack so far but that can change really quick in just one game.

Bernard Pollard leads the team with 69 total tackles and has a pair of sacks and an interception to go along with his stat line. Jameel McClain has 50 total tackles and is a pretty solid piece of the teams linebacking core. Ed Reed has been battling injuries all season but has a team-best ten passes defended and three interceptions while Haloti Ngata has also been battling injuries but has 32 tackles and three sacks. Pul Kruger has filled in nicely this season with a team-best 3.5 sacks (Dannell Ellerbe also has 3.5 sacks) and 25 tackles.

Game Thoughts:

-The clear storyline in this game has to be the health situation, not just for the Steelers but for the Ravens too. The Steelers are going to be missing a good number of key starters on Sunday night that includes Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Add on to that that starting tackle Marcus Gilbert and starting safety Troy Polomalu will not be in the game on you have a pretty significant walking wounded list for the Steelers. I talked about the injuries to the Ravens in the defensive segment but losing guys like Lewis and Webb is a big deal even if they aren't to the magnitude of Roethlisberger they will still make this game interesting and give the Steelers more of a shot to get the victory.

-Talking about injuries means that guys are going to have to step up. Mike Tomlin likes to talk about "next man up" and that is going to have to be true this week. Last week Byron Leftwich came in and didn't look very good in the second half as he replaced Roethlisberger and after missing all of last season with a broken arm he is going to be making his first start since the 2009 season when he was with Tampa Bay. I wish I had any idea of what to expect but you can be sure that he is not going to be like Ben is. He isn't going to be able to make a ton of people miss but he does have a big arm and it will be interesting to see how Todd Haley adapts to this change. To be honest I wish I had any idea what was going to go on with Lefty. I think the Steelers are in a much better position that any other team in the league with their backup quarterback spot but you obviously hope you never have to use it. Leftwich looked really rusty last week when he came in but you have to remember that he gets very minimal reps in practice so after some game action and a full week in practice he should look much sharper on the field on Sunday night. I do worry about his mobility and his ridiculously long throwing motion but I think the poor Baltimore secondary might help that situation.

-Leftwich's play is going to be a main point in the Steelers final result in the game but the other is going to be how well the Steelers can contain the Ravens special teams. Baltimore's special teams unit is ranked the best in the league by Football Outsiders with an 11.3% DVOA and they lead the league with an average of 12.6 points above average on kick returns. Jacoby Jones is an outstanding returner that helps the Ravens average almost 30 yards per kickoff return and 7.8 yards on punt returns. The Raves are the only team in the league to have more than one kickoff return for a touchdown as they have two on the season. Typically these games between the Ravens and Steelers the final margin is close so field position is going to be a HUGE factor in determining who wins this game.

-I have talked so much about the losses for the Steelers but the big gain in this game is getting Rashard Mendenhall back. It has already been announced that he is going to be the starting back and while I know all three guys (Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman) are going to get carries Mendenhall being back is a huge deal. People love Dwyer and Redman for what they have done over that past month when they have been there but Mendenhall is this team's best back and also the most complete back. Redman is the straight ahead brusher and Dwyer is sort of a mix of Mendenhall and Redman but Mendenhall can do it all. He is very elusive and when he gets in the second level he can be gone. No other back on the team is the full package like Mendenhall is and if he gets in a grove then a lot of weight is going to be taken off of Leftwich's back.

-This series has been majorly close since the Ravens moved from Cleveland to Baltimore. In the 32 meetings the Steelers have scored 626 points and the Ravens have scored 603. Since the start of the 2006 season the Steelers have two wins of more than one score and the Ravens have three wins in that fashion while nine other games are one score games and six of those games were decided by a field goal. Just since the start of the 2009 season the Steelers and Ravens have played in eight games and five of those games have been decided by three points. It is going to be a close one.

-This is a big game in the grand scheme of things but it isn't make or break. The scheduling is a little funny this season with the Steelers and Ravens playing twice in a three week stretch and with the way that the injury bug has hit the Steelers it is going to make it very hard for them without Roethliberger. These two teams rarely sweep each other in the regular season so getting a win on Heinz Field turf will go a long way at the end of the season to determine if the Steelers will have a chance to win the AFC North or not.

-Maybe the most important thing, above all, is to limit the Ravens and make them one dimensional. When I talk about making them one dimensional I talk about taking Ray Rice out of the ballgame. The Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been known to give up on the run and therefore give up on Rice and if you are cheering for the Steelers then you have to hope this rings true this week. Rice is the most dynamic player on the field every time the Ravens play and he is on the field. If the Steelers can stuff the run and make sure that Rice is contained in the passing game then Joe Flacco is going to have to beat the Steelers. This is what you want to happen and when I say that I don't mean to say that Flacco can't be a the Steelers by himself because he most certainly can. I just mean that if you give me the option of Flacco and Rice trying to beat me or just Flacco then I will take the latter all day. If Rice is running the ball well then the play action is going to be easy to run and that will mean the Ravens tight ends will have a nice day.

-While the Ravens defense really hasn't done a good job overall they are still doing a great job of limiting teams to field goals when they get in to the red zone. They lead the entire league only letting teams score a touchdown on 36% of trips to the red zone while the Steelers offense is near the middle of the pack scoring at a 50% rate. The Steelers defense is also around a 50% clip of letting teams score touchdown in the end zone while Baltimore has an outstanding red zone offense scoring a touchdown on 66% of the trips to the red zone. Clear advantage for the Ravens because even one drive where you hold the Steelers to three instead of seven and that might be enough in a game that is usually decided by three points.

PREDICTION - Man, Steelers and Ravens. Although I think the physicality of the game gets over blown a little bit this is still the game of games in the AFC North. It might not feel the same because of the injuries (I have talked about this a lot haven't I?) and the lack of defense but this is still going to be one of the premier games in the AFC North. I really see this game going one of two ways: the first is that the Ravens offense is clicking just like they were last week and the Steelers defense won't be able to keep up in a Ravens blowout win. The second is that the Steelers defense forces Flacco to be average and it will come down to a late field goal to win like most games. I am going to go with the latter and take the Steelers by the field goal. Steelers 23, Ravens 20.

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