Justin K. Aller
The fact the Ravens score an average of 20 points more at home than they do on the road is attributable to their no huddle offense. The key to stopping that is limiting their success on first down and not letting the Ravens establish an offensive rhythm.
There's a shocking 20 point difference between Baltimore's offensive output at home vs. on the road. Some of that can be attributed to huge shellackings of Cincinnati (44-13) and Oakland (55-20) in Weeks 1 and 10, respectively.
A much larger chunk, though, is the result of quarterback Joe Flacco's Rodgers-like 9.28 yards per pass attempt. And that is the result of a dominant no huddle offense that clicks much better at home than on the road.
Baltimore has built its offense to be versatile above all else. The presence of multi-faceted running back Ray Rice was only bolstered by the addition of fullback Vonta Leach in 2011. The combination of outstanding all-around wide receiver with the developing speed demon Torrey Smith joins with quality pass-catching tight end Dennis Pitta gives the Ravens a combination of skill players who can present a threat on the ground and in the air.
Given the opportunity to substitute, defenses can counter based on situation as much as personnel, but sticking with any one package gives Flacco the ability to get to the line locked in on that group and pick away at it.
The key to stopping it is getting early down stops. The Steelers can win the line of scrimmage with its base defense against the run. Its nickel package is getting even stronger against the run and has been lights-out against the pass over the last six games (allowing a league-low 166 yards per game and 5.9 yards per attempt).
However, Rice is one of the most powerful runners in the league, and has the ability to turn a two-yard gain into five just through his effort. After those kinds of runs, the Ravens flip to their no huddle, and exploit the situational opportunity they're given.
On second-and-five, they can stick with a two-back set with equal ability to run and throw. From it, they can spread Leach out to more of an H-back position and run stretch zone with Rice. They can keep Pitta inline, drawing safety help in run anticipation and get Boldin isolated on the short side of the field and work him on a short post. They can continue to pound the ball with Rice between the tackles.
The more success they have running the ball or attacking short, the more comfortable Flacco is. That's when they go up top, relying on Flacco's arm strength and impressive accuracy down the middle of the field.
They can - and very likely will - hit those deep seam passes to Pitta and Smith out of the no huddle, and the best way for the Steelers to stop it is to limit Rice on early downs.
In their Week 11 game, Rice was all but invisible in the running game, eliminating that inclination to go to the no-huddle. Outstanding performances from OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley along with NT Casey Hampton forced the Ravens to play more conservatively - an approach that worked considering the Steelers' lack of ability to move the ball after the first drive of the game.
Expect Baltimore to approach this game in the opposite fashion - they're going to want to get the ball deep down the field, looking to end the race for the division title, and continue holding ground on the No. 2 seed for the playoffs.
The Steelers defense must survive the early portion of this game and give their struggling offense a chance to stay in this game. A huge part of the success of that plan will be keeping the Ravens out of their no huddle offense.