The bye week is over and it’s Ravens week for all of Steelers Nation. As the team gets ready to head to M&T Bank Stadium to face their division rival, I’ll walk through a couple scenarios that could potentially end up in the Steelers going back home 5-3 or 4-4.
Why the Steelers will win: On offense it’s all about Le’Veon Bell. It’s no secret that No. 26 is the most dynamic player on either team. As a runner Bell has a knack for turning nothing into something with this patience and cutting ability. He sometimes looks slow and stymied behind the line and then suddenly makes a quick cut and bursts through a hole that only he can see and picks up four (or more) yards. As a receiver, teams often overlook him because he tends to hang out in the empty spaces between the front seven and the secondary after throwing a quick chip on a pass rusher. If a linebacker gets the assignment to cover him in this situation, he’s almost guaranteed to pick up that next first down.
Regardless of who is under center, Todd Haley needs to get Bell involved in the offense early and let him be the workhorse. If Baltimore has to slide more help up to try and contain Bell, then Antonio Brown, DHB and company will find success in the passing game, especially if #7 is under center. If the offense starts to click like that, Pittsburgh will once again be a point scoring machine. Of course Bell’s effectiveness hinges on the big men up front. The return of Marcus Gilbert to the starting lineup is a big positive, but the line as a unit needs to play better than they did the last two games.
On defense, I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but the Steelers need to get back to playing fundamentally sound football. The 11 men on the field for any given play must know their assignments and stay in their lane. The tackling the last two games was beyond bad. I know Keith Butler is excited to get a healthy Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier back in the mix. The leadership and intensity of Heyward seems to add a big spark for this defense, and a healthy, rested Shazier is a difference maker. One of the biggest problems I saw against Miami was Vince Williams over-committing to a play on one side of the field, only to get caught behind the play going the opposite direction. The one thing Shazier has that Williams does not is ridiculous speed. Shazier isn’t perfect, but he doesn’t get caught out of position because if he does make a mistake and commit to the wrong side, he is usually fast enough to run down the play. Williams does not have that luxury. Also if Shazier can channel his inner Troy Polamalu and create a little havoc around the line of scrimmage, Joe Flacco will have trouble getting the ball out accurately, if at all. I know that Troy was a freak of nature and had a knack for jumping snap-counts, and I don’t really expect Butler to give Shazier as long of a leash as Troy was allowed, but this defense could certainly use some splash plays and Shazier has the speed and athleticism to make them.
Why the Ravens will win: Ben Roethlisberger pulls his all too familiar stunt of playing below his normal standards in his first game back from injury. The fact that he has practiced to some degree all week at least gives Steelers Nation hope that his timing with his receivers will be fine, but how comfortable will he be if the pass rush gets after him and he has to run or takes a hit on that surgically repaired knee.
John Harbaugh and his team just seem to have the Steelers’ number, winning five of the last six including both match-ups last season, despite being a horrible team in 2015. Last year’s losses fall into that same statistic that the Steelers continue to solidify by losing games that they should win. Last year the Ravens had a big chunk of their salary cap on IR, and yet even without all their stars were able to beat the Steelers twice. I don’t know if it’s coaching, lack of focus, not taking the opponent seriously or a combination of all three, but the Steelers need to buck that awful trend and find a way to win this game.
The Steelers secondary. I had high hopes for this unit in the preseason. Apparently, that’s all they were; hopes. The secondary is not playing well; not tackling well, not covering well, and not creating turnovers. Steve Smith Sr., Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman can all cause problems for the Steelers, particularly Smith. He’s tough as nails and a very crafty, strong receiver. The secondary will need to be on their assignments all day or these receivers will make the Steelers pay. Wallace may still be a one trick pony, but he’s still a damn fast pony and the Ravens will try to find ways to get him behind the defense. If we see Steelers defenders taking peeks into the Ravens backfield, the Baltimore receivers will get behind them quickly and put points on the board. The tackling from the secondary will need to be far better than it has lately as well.
To recap, if the Steelers can consistently move the chains using Le’veon Bell and play fundamentally sound defensive football, they should win this game. If they end up playing from behind and having to throw fifty times because their defense plays as poorly as they did against Miami and New England, Terrance West and the Ravens will run all over them and then set up Flacco for the deep ball and the Steelers will not only lose the game, but also hand Baltimore sole possession of first place in AFC North.