The Pittsburgh Steelers will seek to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2013 on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, who are seeking to avoid their first five-game losing streak under John Harbaugh’s tutelage.
To accomplish this task, the Steelers must:
Put some pressure on Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco, who is assuredly the most elite quarterback in the NFL, is having a pretty rough season thus far. His 74.5 quarterback rating is the fourth-worst in the NFL among players who have attempted at least 130 passes, and his five touchdown passes are a league-low among players with 150 attempts. In fact, Flacco is currently on pace to throw more interceptions than touchdown passes, which typically only works if your name is Brett Favre.
Granted, Flacco doesn’t have a particularly deep stable of weapons, and Baltimore’s leading rusher and receiver, Terrence West and Mike Wallace, are a pair of former AFC North castoffs who are playing for their third team in as many years. Regardless, the Ravens go as Joe Flacco goes, and Flacco usually “goes” fairly well against the Steelers, as evidenced by his 8-7 career record against Pittsburgh and his 18-to-7 touchdown/interception ratio.
Keep the quarterback (probably Ben) clean
For all of their notable offensive deficiencies, the Ravens are bringing it on defense this season. Baltimore currently boasts the NFL’s fourth-best defense in terms of yards per game, and have forced 13 turnovers, including eight interceptions. Even if injured QB Ben Roethlisberger does play against Baltimore this Sunday, he has been just as turnover-prone as Flacco (6 interceptions, ninth-most in the league) so far this season, and his surgically-repaired knee probably won’t be close to 100 percent.
This isn’t to say Roethlisberger won’t be effective. He might be. Last season, Roethlisberger threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns in just over three quarters on a bum foot against Cleveland. On the other hand, Roethlisberger threw three costly interceptions in a 16-10 home loss to Cincinnati in his first game back from a knee injury that same season.
Point being: keep the attack balanced. Le’Veon Bell should touch the ball as much as possible on Sunday, and Pittsburgh’s receivers should be targeted early and often in the screen game.
Limit field-flipping plays
To borrow Mike Tomlin’s most recent Tomlinism, the Steelers need to prevent Baltimore from making “field-flipping” plays.
In Weeks 1 through 5, Pittsburgh was among the best teams in the league in limiting long plays. Pittsburgh was so good, in fact, that they are still ranked in the top six in the NFL in plays of 20 or more yards allows and plays of 40 or more yards allowed. Unfortunately, the current statistics don’t tell the entire story, as the Steelers defense yielded four plays of 35 or more yards in Weeks 6 and 7 against Miami and New England.
Flacco and Wallace are no Brady and Gronk, but Flacco has one of the league’s strongest arms and Wallace is still among the fastest players in the NFL. So far this season, Flacco has hit Wallace for plays of 66 (TD), 77 and 53 yards, and the duo will certainly try their best to connect on some big plays against Pittsburgh’s porous secondary. For Pittsburgh, defending the 20-yard plays will be just as important as the 40-yard gains, as All-Pro K Justin Tucker enables the Ravens to salvage seemingly-lost drives with his trademark leg; Baltimore can consider themselves to be in scoring position as soon as they cross Pittsburgh’s 40-yard line.