The AFC North's two best battle in Baltimore
The two best teams in the AFC North, and two of the best in the entire NFL, face off on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers duke it out with the Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh (6-0) poses the biggest challenge for Baltimore (5-1) in the last month. After losing at home to the Chiefs in Week 3, the Ravens have found their groove, winning three straight games by an average of 13.3 points. But take that margin of victory with a hefty grain of salt, as those three teams were the Washington Football Team, the Bengals, and the Eagles — not exactly a Murderer's Row of opponents. But coming off the bye week, and adding some defensive punch, the Ravens are poised to regain a share of the division's top spot with a win against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are 6-0 for just the second time in franchise history and for the first time since 1978. The Black and Yellow are riding high after a huge, 27-24, road win against Tennessee last Sunday. The win was the first real test of the season for Pittsburgh, as they have now proven they are one of the AFC's elite squads. However, after coming out of the gate hot against Tennessee, the Steelers left something to be desired with a near fourth-quarter collapse and a stalled second-half offense. A win against Baltimore on Sunday would give the Steelers a two-game division lead as we near the halfway point of the season.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Lamar Jackson slipping
What Jackson did on the field last season as the league's MVP was as special as we have ever seen in the NFL. So, yeah, his insane numbers from 2019 were likely to slip somewhat in 2020. But this type of downturn is surprising.
Jackson has regressed to the point where you won't see his name in the top 10 of any of the major passing categories so far this season. He's 13th in touchdowns (10), 14th in passer rating (99.2), 23rd in yards per attempt (7.01), 24th in completion rate (63 percent), and 25th in yards (1,135).
He started out this season where he left off in 2019, dominating in wins against Cleveland and Houston -- four touchdowns, 77 percent completion rate, and a 134 passer rating. But over the last four games, Jackson has played noticeably poor, completing only 56 percent of throws, averaging six yards per attempt, and showing a measly 83.8 rating. He's been held under 200 passing yards in each of the last four games, including a 73.1 rating, 97-yard stinker against the Chiefs on "Monday Night Football." He bounced back against Washington the next week but has continued his slide since. Against the Bengals and Eagles, Jackson completed only 55 percent of his passes for 366 total yards and a lowly 80.6 rating.
It seems that once his primary target is covered, Jackson holds on to the ball too long (3 sec. per throw) or forces throws into coverage downfield (18 percent bad throws). The Ravens' running game and defense have been able to hide his mistakes against teams like Washington, Philly, and Cincy, but that type of play won't work against this Pittsburgh defense. If anyone knows that, it's Jackson. The worst outing from his MVP season last year was in his one game against Pittsburgh. Granted, the Ravens still won, but not before the Steelers forced three Jackson interceptions and sacked him five times.
Jackson can expect much of that same pressure on Sunday. The Steelers' D is the most aggressive unit in the NFL when it comes to attacking quarterbacks, ranking first in sacks (26), pressures (88), and hurries (38), and second in blitz percentage (44 percent). The Steelers are the only team that has four players with at least three sacks this season — T.J. Watt (5.5), Bud Dupree (5.0), Stephon Tuitt (4.0), and Mike Helton (3.0). I'd expect for Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Butler to call for an absurd number of blitzes against Jackson who has already been sacked 15 times this season compared to just 23 all of 2019.
2. Pittsburgh's fast start, slow finish
The Steelers' offensive explosion in the first half against Tennessee was near textbook. Pittsburgh scored on the game's opening drive in 16 plays, eating up 9:18 of game clock. Ben Roethlisberger found six different receivers and went 10 of 12 on the possession, converting four third downs en route to pay dirt. The first two Pittsburgh drives resulted in 14 points in 29 plays and more than 16 minutes of game time spent. The Steelers had the Titans in a stranglehold at halftime, up 24-7.
In the second half, the flip switched and the Pittsburgh offense began to sputter. They converted on a field goal on the first drive, but the next three produced a total of 12 plays, 35 yards, 5:56 of game time, and two first downs. The Steelers only gained 134 yards of total offense in the second half. Seventy-two of those yards came on Pittsburgh's final drive of the game which resulted in Roethlisberger's third interception that kept the Titans in the game.
Tennessee's secondary became much more physical in the second half. Their toughness at the line of scrimmage with Pittsburgh's receivers threw the timing off of the Steelers' short passing game, resulting in turnovers and short drives. I'd expect to see the Ravens' outstanding defensive backs bring that same physicality from the jump on Sunday. The Baltimore defense as a whole is much better than that of Tennessee. The Ravens boast the top scoring defense in the league (17.3 ppg) and are much, much better at stuffing teams on third down (34 percent, 6th) compared to the Titans (61 percent, 32nd).
3. Steelers' O-Line vs. Ravens' newly improved front seven
The Steelers' offensive line has been ridiculously good at protecting Big Ben over the years. Since 2014, they've only surrendered 175 sacks, the second-fewest in that span. The Pittsburgh O-line has continued to shield their quarterback with the best of them this season. Roethlisberger has only been sacked eight times this year. Against Tennessee, Roethlisberger was blitzed 17 times on 49 dropbacks but was only pressured (hit, hurried, or sacked) five times with no sacks.
Roethlisberger shouldn't expect that much cushion against Baltimore. The Ravens are one of the most aggressive defenses in the league, blitzing more than any other team in the NFL (46 percent), getting pressure on quarterbacks on 29 percent of dropbacks (2nd), and have 22 sacks (4th, 2nd entering bye week).
The news gets worse for Big Ben. Last week, the Ravens traded future third- and fifth-round draft picks to Minnesota for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue (5 sacks). The trade for Ngakoue turns an already outstanding Baltimore defense into a sheer force. With Ngakoue and Matthew Judon coming off the edge and Calais Campbell charging through the middle, the Ravens now have an elite four-man pass rush. This in turn should allow Baltimore's superior secondary to focus more on what they do best, shutting down receivers, instead of blitzing — which they're also pretty good at, too (8 total sacks).
For the second straight week, we're about to see what the Steelers are made of, playing a top-notch AFC opponent. But this time, their opponent is a little more well-rounded on the defensive side and more capable of exposing Ben Roethlisberger's limitations. After coming off the bye and adding Yannick Ngakoue, I like the Ravens by a nose.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Steelers 24
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.