AFC North showdown could provide offensive fireworks
Many NFL fans still think defense first when they think of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, and for good reason. More than a third of the time since the series began in 1996, the winning team scored 20 points or fewer. Almost as often, the losing team hasn’t even scored 10 points.
But these are not your father’s Ravens and Steelers. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are long retired, and the Steel Curtain defense has served more like a matador’s red cape for opposing offenses, stepping aside as yard and points against pile up.
When these teams last met in December, they combined for 958 yards of total offense as the Steelers raced to a 14–0 lead, fell behind 31–20, then rallied for a 39–38 win. Don’t be surprised if something similar happens again.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 30 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Is the Ravens' pass defense for real?
At first glance, the numbers say that Baltimore is among the toughest pas defenses in the NFL, ranking second in passing yards allowed and first in yards per attempt against. But we’re only three games into the season, so things can get skewed based on who teams play. Lets’ not forget the Ravens opened against Nathan Peterman and the Bills, holding Buffalo to just 70 net passing yards. Shutting down Case Keenum and the Broncos last week was also not much of a surprise. In their only loss this season, Baltimore gave up three Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green touchdowns in the first 17 minutes of the game and never fully recovered. If something like that happens again, the Ravens could have flashbacks to Ben Roethlisberger’s 506-yard day against them in December.
2. Baltimore may be able to keep up
Again, it’s dangerous to draw firm conclusions based on three games. But while there is reason for skepticism when looking at the Ravens defensive numbers, there is some evidence that the offense is more explosive this season. Last season, no Baltimore player was targeted more than 92 times in the passing game, and tight end Ben Watson led the team with 61 catches. So far in 2018, three Ravens wide receivers are on pace for more than 100 targets and at least 64 catches. Not coincidentally, all three — Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead — are new to the Ravens this season. The Steelers pass defense has been torched each of the last two weeks, so Baltimore might have a chance here even in a shootout.
3. Antonio Brown due to break out
Many receivers would love to be off to the start that the Steelers’ top target is — he is, after all, on pace to for his sixth straight 100-catch season. But Brown has largely been held in check by opponents so far, averaging just 70 yards per game and 8.8 yards per catch. Compare that to last season, when he led the NFL in yards (1,533) and yards per game (109.5) and averaged 15.2 yards per catch, and it’s easy to see why he has been visibly frustrated at times during games. The Ravens shut Brown down at home last season, holding him to 34 yards on four catches, but he exploded for 213 yards on 11 grabs back home at Heinz Field. Expect something closer to that performance this week.
Heading into the weekend, no team in the AFC North was below .500 thanks the Steelers and Browns playing to a tie. While they may bludgeon each other into submission, it’s certainly possible three teams from the division make the playoffs when all is said and done. For that to happen, though, it will have to stay crowded near the top. And the guess here is that the Bengals lose at Atlanta, the Browns win in Oakland, and the Steelers win this one. Which will leave us right where we started — with no AFC North team below .500.