Four key matchups to watch for in Ravens v Steelers Part II
The Baltimore Ravens will finally be hitting the road to face off with the still undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers for the second time and possibly final time this season in Week 12, barring a potential meeting in the postseason.
This game had to be postponed three times due to the Ravens’ recent outbreak of COVID-19 and even though they will be without several starters, including the reigning league MVP, it could still come down to one or several pivotal matchups between individual players or whole units on the opposing side of the ball.
Here are four key matchups that could determine the outcome of this game:
QB Robert Griffin v Steelers secondary
The seven-year veteran signal-caller won’t be asked to air the ball out all over the field against the Steelers stout secondary led by All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
He was able to lead a shorthanded Ravens’ team to a 28-10 victory in Week 17 last year over this exact same starting defensive backfield by mostly handing the ball off to his talented running back duo of Gus Edwards and Justice Hill and only completing 11 of his 21 passes for just 96 yards passing, no touchdowns, and an interception.
This time around he’ll have an even deeper stable of backs to hand the ball off to with veteran Mark Ingram and rookie J.K. Dobbins expected to be eligible to play in this game. That means that Griffin will need to be efficient in the passing game when called upon to do so and just not lose the turnover battle.
The Ravens out rushed, passed, and overall gained the Steelers by a landslide in the first meeting between these two bitter rivals but were unable to overcome a four-turnover game from starting quarterback Lamar Jackson who lost two fumbles and was intercepted twice.
All Griffin will likely be asked to do in this game from a passing standpoint is to distribute and take care of the ball. He could pass for under 100 yards as long as he makes throws when it counts, and the Ravens could still pull off an upset. If Baltimore can establish the run and dominate on the ground, there won’t be a need to rely too much on his arm.
Ravens offensive line v Steelers front seven
In order to ensure that Griffin has the time to throw and that the running game can get going, the Ravens’ reshuffled offensive line will need to assert their will on arguably the fiercest front seven in the entire league on road.
In the first meeting, they did a fantastic job opening up holes and springing Edwards and Dobbins for chunks of yardage even after losing two starters in the first half, one being All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and finished with a season-high 265 yards on the ground.
Luckily starting right tackle D.J. Fluker was activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 List on Monday and will be playing in this game, but versatile interior offensive linemen Patrick Mekari and Matt Skura remain on the list and will be out.
The Steelers sacked Jackson four times in the last outing and while most pundits believe the biggest threats to the Ravens’ offensive game plan is the dangerous edge-rushing tandem of outside linebackers TJ Watt and Bud Dupree, defensive tackle Cam Heyward could be game wrecker up the middle against both the pass and the run.
Luckily Stephon Tuitt won’t be playing because he is sadly out with COVID-19 but Heyward will pose a significant threat to an interior offensive line that will include third-year pro Bradley Bozeman either at left guard or center or a rookie at either spot and second-year pro Ben Powers likely at right or left guard.
Heyward is a three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time First-Team All-Pro selection. He will try to capitalize on the youth and inexperience of the Ravens young linemen that find themselves starting in what some say is a ‘must-win’ game if the team wants to keep their dwindling playoff hopes alive.
Ravens secondary v Steelers wide receivers
Pittsburgh is loaded with dynamic pass catchers at the wide receiver position to the point that rookie Chase Claypool, second-year pro Diontae Johnson and fourth-year pro JuJu Smith-Schuster take turns being the No.1 from week to week because opposing defenses key in on whoever wen off the week before which gives the others opportunities to shine.
Veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a great distributor of the ball as evident by the fact that all three of his top targets have recorded at least 535 yards receiving and have caught four or more touchdowns.
Fortunately for the Ravens, one of the position groups that have hardly been affected by the outbreak is their defensive backfield outside of backup safety Geno Stone who tested positive on Tuesday.
Baltimore will have their entire starting secondary available and active for this game and will be the determining factor on whether this game will be tightly contested as opposed to the blowout most of the nation is expecting to see with all the adversity that the team has endured over the last week plus.
Ravens First-Team All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey and Smith-Schuster have had great battles every time they’ve faced off over the last two seasons and have each made their fair share of plays against the other.
While Smith-Schuster leads the Steelers in receptions (58) and catch percentage, Claypool has been the most explosive of Pittsburgh loaded bunch in his first season. He leads the team in receiving yards (559) and touchdowns (eight), one of which came against the Ravens in the first meeting on an eight-yarder that ultimately proved to be the game-winner.
The Ravens are better equipped to handle the Steelers’ multi-receiver sets than they were the last time with the addition of seasoned veteran Tramon Williams in the lineup instead of Terrell Bonds who was targeted by Roethlisberger in some crucial situations in the previous meeting but is now on injured reserve with a knee injury.
ILB Patrick Queen v TE Eric Ebron
Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale likes to use veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith as a defensive chess piece to cover the opposing team’s premier pass-catching tight ends in man coverage since they are essentially big-bodied receivers.
However, the unique challenge that the Steelers present since they are so deep at wide receiver is that when they go with an empty backfield and rollout their four wideout and one tight end formation, it will likely force Smith back to his natural spot at outside corner and leave coverage responsibilities for Ebron to the rookie inside linebacker by default since he plays the MIKE spot and is often the lone linebacker on the field in their Nickel and Dime sub-packages.
Baltimore’s first round pick in this year’s draft has had a great rookie season to date and specializes in making splash plays at and behind the line of scrimmage. However, one area of his game that he has struggled mightily with is in coverage and consistently making plays in the passing game.
His struggles have been so apparent that opposing teams routinely single him out and call plays to his assigned man or area. He could find himself lined up across from and following Pittsburgh’s veteran tight end early and often in this game and he will need to step and play much better in space than he has all season.
Ebron has been a popular target for Roethlisberger in the red zone as of late and has hauled in a touchdown in three of their last four games, including an 18-yarder against the Ravens where he coasted into the end zone untouched after a miscommunication of zone coverage responsibility between Queen and veteran LJ Fort.
If Queen isn’t able to step up and cover Ebron and any of the running backs down the field, the Ravens won’t hesitate to sit him in obvious passing situations in favor of Fort who has shown to be adept in both man and zone coverage.