Every streak was made to be broken. That’s the central fact surrounding the Christmas Day matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field. Baltimore comes to town sporting a 4-game winning streak versus the Steelers. In the two teams’ past four meetings, the Steelers have scored an anemic average of only 17 points per game. For the past two Steelers/Ravens matchups, Ben Roethlisberger has posted dismal passer ratings of 67.3 (in the November 6th game) and 63.4 (in the infamous Mallett Bowl game on December 27, 2015). Le’Veon Bell, the NFL running back currently receiving the most glowing accolades, rushed for a mere 32 yards and two first downs at M&T Stadium on November 6th.
Not surprisingly, the loyal fans of Steelers Nation are scratching their collective heads to determine the cause of this latest Ravens curse over the Black and Gold. And if the Steelers hope to extend their current winning streak to six games, thereby claiming the AFC North title, recent history shows they’ll need to start doing things differently in some key areas.
Key No. 1: Score points earlier in the game
In the 2016 season’s first matchup at M&T Stadium, the Steelers were blanked until 6:22 into the fourth quarter, scoring all of their 14 points during the final nine minutes of play. Similarly, going back to the Steelers’ loss in December 2015, they scored only 10 points in the first three quarters of play. Even one additional TD scored during any of the first three quarters in either game would have made a huge difference, giving the Steelers a good chance to turn those defeats into victories.
Obviously, Roethlisberger must turn in a significantly better performance on Sunday than his previous two outings against Baltimore. Pittsburgh’s offensive line also must do a better job of blocking for Bell in the early going than they did in November. After all, the Ravens’ defense isn’t exactly impenetrable. In last year’s Mallett Bowl, DeAngelo Williams rushed for 100 yards and a 5.88 average per carry.
In the passing game, Eli Rogers might be Ben’s go-to option in view of the potential absence of Sammie Coates. In the teams’ previous matchup, Rogers was the leading Steelers receiver, besting Antonio Brown while gashing the Ravens for six catches totaling 103 yards. The Ravens’ secondary typically focuses heavily on Brown, so this should open up some good opportunities for No. 17.
Conversely, if we have another game where the Steelers’ offense fails to get untracked until the second half, it might be a tough day for the Black and Gold against their arch-rivals. Of all the NFL teams faced by the Steelers, the Ravens probably are the most adept in frustrating Pittsburgh’s offense and forcing Big Ben to exercise far more patience than he obviously prefers. The Ravens are quite good at taking away Pittsburgh’s offensive bread-and-butter plays. They’ve studied the Steelers’ tendencies conscientiously and they usually seem to know what’s coming in any particular game situation. Thus, the Steelers’ primary task on Sunday is to get off to a faster start and avoid falling into the same pattern of offensive sleepwalking and predictable play-calling that we’ve seen during the past two years when facing Baltimore.
Key No. 2: Defense and special teams cannot surrender big plays
The story of the Steelers’ November 6th defeat in Baltimore boiled down to two huge plays by the Ravens. In the first quarter, Mike Wallace’s 95-yard catch and run delivered an early shock to the psyche of Steelers Nation. Then, in the fourth quarter, the unblocked Javorius Allen swatted down Jordan Berry’s punt and the loose ball was scooped up in full stride by wide receiver Chris Moore who returned it for a TD, extending Baltimore’s lead to 21-0 and providing the final margin of victory.
Even as poorly as the Steelers’ offense performed in that previous meeting, the Black and Gold still might have come home with a win absent those two major gaffes by the defense and special teams. As the Steelers defense clearly has improved during the course of this season, Pittsburgh must turn in another inspired performance like the one we saw last Sunday during the second half in Cincinnati.
Key No. 3: Don’t ditch the running game too early
The Steelers have developed a bad habit of almost entirely jettisoning the running attack when it’s being stuffed early in the game. The Ravens know this trait only too well, so don’t be surprised if the going is pretty tough for Bell (and perhaps Williams) during the first quarter. But if the Steelers give up too soon and fail to show the Ravens that they need to play more honest on defense, there’s a real danger of the result being approximately the same as the one we saw in early November. In this regard, fullback Roosevelt Nix could play a huge role in helping to open some holes for No. 26.
The Ravens will be counting on Pittsburgh to exhibit essentially the same trademark tendencies that they’ve shown in the past. Thus, Baltimore will aim to test the patience of the Steelers’ offense—hoping to force Ben out of his comfort zone—while the Ravens’ offense and special teams will try to hit a couple of big plays as they did in the previous meeting. As anyone following the Ravens this season knows, they’re certainly no offensive juggernaut. Thus, by making some modest improvements on both sides of the ball and by avoiding turnovers as they did last Sunday, the Steelers can keep their winning streak intact, put an end to the Ravens’ 4-game streak in head-to-head play and claim the AFC North crown.