One of the NFL’s top current rivalries will renew acquaintances when the Baltimore Ravens take on the Pittsburgh Steelers this afternoon at 4 p.m. ET on CBS. Both teams have gotten off to disappointing starts, as John Harbaugh’s defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are just 3-3 and Mike Tomlin’s Steelers finally picked up their first win of the season last week.
These two teams are certainly no strangers to each other, as they have been in the same division since the Ravens’ first season in 1996. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 19-15 during the regular season and also has won all three playoff matchups. Baltimore has won three of the last four regular-season meetings as well as the last three played at Heinz Field.
4 Things to Watch
Even though several of the names have changed, especially for the Ravens, this is still one of the NFL’s best rivalries going. Since the creation of the AFC North in 2002, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have combined to win 10 of the 11 division titles during that span. Five different times the Ravens and Steelers were either first or second in the same season and these two teams have combined to win three of the past eight Super Bowls. These are two of the most successful franchises over the past decade, so it should be no surprise that their head-to-head meetings have been so competitive and, more often than not, close. Eight of the last 10 regular-season games have been decided by three points. So don’t let the records fool you, both of these teams have a lot of pride and would like nothing more than to add to the others’ loss column. Cleveland may be in first place in the division right now, but everyone is within shouting distance, even Pittsburgh at 1-4. A win for the Steelers would not only pull them closer, it would mean a victory over the defending Super Bowl champions, while the Ravens would like nothing more than to put their arch rival in an even bigger hole. It may only be October, but don’t be surprised if this one feels like a playoff game.
Getting Back to the Basics
These two teams are similar in several ways – they have Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, solid defenses who are usually among the best units in the league, and they pride themselves on being physical on both sides of the ball. Both teams usually are able to run the ball consistently too, but that has not been the case this season. Entering Week 7, Baltimore was 27th in the NFL in rushing offense and Pittsburgh was second to last. Both the Ravens and Steelers are averaging less than 73 yards rushing per game and are gaining no more than 3.1 yards per carry. Baltimore’s Ray Rice, who has averaged more than 1,260 yards rushing per season over his last four, is currently on pace for 591 yards and has yet to post a rush of more than 20 yards. The Steelers’ season high for rushing yards in a game by any player thus far is 57 by rookie Le’Veon Bell and the team has a total of two rushing touchdowns. The lack of success running the ball has put more pressure on the quarterbacks and is a big reason why these offenses aren’t scoring a bunch of points and the teams are a collective 4-7. The Ravens’ defense has done a better job than the Steelers’ of stopping the run, but both offenses have to figure out some way to get something going on the ground, even if it’s just to help set up the play-action game. It’s a cliché, but chances are whichever team wins the battle in the trenches on offense, will probably come out on top on the scoreboard too.
Joe Cool vs. Big Ben
Both Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger have won a Super Bowl, have risen to the occasion more than once and also come up short numerous times in their careers. While each quarterback’s running game, defense and special teams will play an important role in this game, there’s no question that the spotlight will largely fall on them. Each has already had to carry their offense early this season because of the struggles on the ground, and their numbers to this point are somewhat of a mixed bag. Although Flacco’s Ravens are 3-3, last year’s Super Bowl MVP hasn’t been at his best. Through six games Flacco is seventh in the NFL in yards passing (1,702), but he has more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (7), and he is just 26th in completion percentage (57.9) and passer rating (76.2). Meanwhile, Roethlisberger’s Steelers have just one win despite him being seventh in completion percentage (65.6) and 15th in passer rating (88.8). Some of Flacco’s issues can be attributed to the offseason trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the season-long absence of tight end Dennis Pitta (dislocated his hip in training camp), leaving wideout Torrey Smith as his most established, not to mention familiar, target. Roethlisberger has gotten even less support than Flacco from the running game, and the Steelers’ offense as a whole has struggled on third down and in the red zone. The Steelers are scoring a touchdown when they are in red zone less than 40 percent of the time. The only team in the NFL that has a lower percentage right now is the 0-6 Jaguars. Both teams’ offensive issues are well documented and go well beyond the quarterback, but fair or not, in the NFL the buck stops with the guy under center.
Who Wins on Third Down?
Another way in which Baltimore and Pittsburgh are similar, especially this season, is how they have performed on both sides of the ball on third down. While each offense may be struggling to convert its opportunities, both defenses rank among the best when it comes to preventing opponents from picking up the first down. On offense, the Ravens and Steelers have both been successful less than 36 percent of the time on third down. On defense, the Ravens entered this week ranked fourth in the NFL (31.2 percent) in third down prevention, while the Steelers were tied for ninth (36.2). While this trend could likely continue this afternoon, the offense that is able to get the job done on third down should be well positioned to get the win. As has already been documented, the majority of these games have been close in recent years, meaning one prolonged drive that includes a third down pickup or two could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Baltimore Key Player: Terrell Suggs, LB
Ray Lewis has retired, Ed Reed is in Houston and several other defenders from last year’s Super Bowl team are no longer with the Ravens. In fact, six of the starters from February’s title game in New Orleans left after winning the Lombardi Trophy. With all of the changes on Baltimore’s defense, one of the few constants that remain is Suggs. The unit’s unquestioned leader, Suggs has made his presence known both on and off the field. He already has seven sacks on the season, which was good for fourth in the NFL entering Week 7 and accounted for nearly a third of the team’s total of 22. The Ravens have the second most sacks of any team, and no doubt getting to Ben Roethlisberger will be important in this game. Roethlisberger has a reputation for being able to move in the pocket and then make something out of nothing when it breaks down, but he’s also been sacked 19 times already. The Steelers have had trouble running the ball, which only makes Roethlisberger’s job more difficult. As one of the longest-tenured Ravens on the roster, Suggs is very familiar with this rivalry. That’s why you know his focus when he’s on the field will be making sure that Big Ben doesn’t get too comfortable in the pocket.
Pittsburgh Key Unit: Offensive Line
Similar to last season, the Steelers’ offensive line has been plagued by injuries. This season it started when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in the Steelers’ first possession in the season opener at Tennessee. Pouncey’s loss has had a domino effect along the entirety of the line, as a replacement at center had to be added and the depth chart has seen changes on almost a weekly basis. The end result has been a line that has yet to play a game at 100 percent and is struggling to open holes in the running game and giving Ben Roethlisberger enough time in the pocket. Baltimore’s defense is fourth in the league in sacks and has held up fairly well against both the run and pass. It’s up to Pittsburgh’s patch-work line of tackles Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum, guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster, and center Fernando Velasco to come together and put forth its best collaborative effort of the season, or else the Steelers are in real danger of falling to 1-5.
When it comes to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, you can pretty much throw the records out and count on both teams leaving it all out on the field. That said, there is quite a bit riding on this game, as the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are trying to avoid falling below .500 through their first seven games for the first time since 2005. The Steelers are already off to their worst start in 45 years, yet a win tonight would keep them in striking distance in a crowded AFC North.
Both teams haven’t been able to run the ball consistently, which has put even more pressure on Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. Consequently, each quarterback’s production has suffered somewhat, and while the defenses have been solid, they haven’t been as dominant as in years past.
The difference this afternoon will be a combination of capitalizing on opportunities and experience. Roethlisberger will get just enough time to make some big, critical plays in the passing game, as the Steelers’ pass-catchers win more of the one-on-one battles against the Ravens’ “new” secondary and linebacking corps. The experience factor also shows up in that many of these Ravens are “new” to this rivalry with the Steelers, so I think they will have a hard time adjusting to the increased intensity that comes with this game. Like most of the recent matchups, this one will be close, but in the end the “old” Steelers knock off their arch rival for their second win in a row.
Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 13