Four key matchups to watch for in Ravens v Steelers
The Baltimore Ravens are returning from their bye week with a divisional matchup with their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers to kick off the stretch run to finish the 2020 season.
This game has all the makings of an instant AFC North classic with both teams possessing dominant defenses and dynamic playmakers on offense at just about every skill position.
The clash between two of the titans of the AFC could come down to one or several pivotal matchups between individual players or whole units on opposite sides of the ball.
Here are four key matchups that could determine the outcome of this game:
Ravens cornerbacks v Steelers wide receivers
Last year when these two teams first met the marquee matchup was between Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
It was an amazing back and forth battle between the two young stars that ended with Humphrey making the play on Smith-Shuster to set Baltimore up in the position to kick the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Humphrey and fellow 2019 First Team All-Pro Marcus Peters are two of the best players at their positions in the league but with veteran defensive back Jimmy Smith nursing an Achilles injury yet is still expected to play, the Ravens are a little short-staffed in the secondary in the starting-caliber corner department behind their top three.
Ordinarily, having two stars and a stud at corner is usually more than enough to handle most opposing offensive in the league but the Steelers pose a similar threat to the one the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs did in the Raven first and only loss of the season in Week Three on Monday Night Football with the whole world watching.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is blessed with a bevy of talent at the receiver position with an impressively deep and dynamic depth chart that, in addition to Smith-Schuster, consists of second-year pro Diontae Johnson, third-year pro James Washington, and sensational rookie Chase Claypool who has already earned the nickname ‘Mapletron’ for his Canadian heritage and dominant playmaking ability that he has displayed in such a short span of time.
It is really a pick your poison for opposing secondaries when it comes to choosing which Steelers receiver to double cover or roll coverage towards because their top four at the position are capable of making big plays and scoring from anywhere at any level of the defense.
If Pittsburgh decides to roll out four-receiver sets or go with an empty set where with no running back on the field, Baltimore’s depth at cornerback behind their top three will be tested.
With three corners on injured reserve, the Ravens will be relying on undrafted rookie Khalil Dorsey and former undrafted free agent Terrell Bonds.
Neither player has played much defense in the games they’ve been active for this season but the coaching staff has faith in their ability to step up.
“They’re both great young players, have a lot of speed, extremely quick,” said Pass Defense Coordinator Chris Hewitt. “They’re more suited to play inside as a nickel. They just need the opportunity to go out there and get the experience. They go out there every week in practice and make plays. You know how we think around here, it’s next man up. Those guys will ready to go at any point.”
Ravens pass rush v Steelers offensive line
While the Ravens boast the league’s top cornerback tandem with Humphrey and Peters, Pittsburgh may have too many playmakers at the receiver position than Baltimore has healthy quality corners.
That means that the pass rush will have to be fast and furious against an offensive line that has allowed just eight sacks all season—tied for second-fewest in the league—and against a savvy veteran quarterback that possess one of the quickest releases in the league.
Baltimore’s pass rush had begun heating up in the two games before the bye week albeit it came against two of the league’s worst pass protecting units. They’ll get their toughest test of the year thus far when they face off with the Steelers on Sunday and reinforcements couldn’t have come at a better time.
Last Thursday the Ravens acquired Pro Bowl pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings. The fifth-year pro and Maryland native will bring his potent pass rush presence off the edge against the team’s archrivals in his first game in a Ravens uniform.
The Ravens now have a stable of interior and edge rushers with unique and extremely physical skillsets and playing styles that are tailor-made for this rivalry.
Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon has welcomed Ngakoue with open arms and believes he gives their pass rush a major boost.
“He’s a great player. He demands attention,” Judon said. “That’s just going to help us as outside linebacker and edge rushers be better. I think our room got a lot better. Teams are going to have to pick their poison.”
Ravens offensive line v Steelers pass rush
Unlike Pittsburgh’s stellar pass protecting unit, the Ravens’ offensive line is ranked in the middle of the pack in that department. While they shouldn’t be credited for all 15 sacks the team has surrendered, their lack of consistency and discipline has stalled drives and left points on the field several times this year.
Baltimore can’t afford another subpar performance from their big boys up front on the offensive side of the ball against the Steelers because on Sunday it is going to be the true definition of trench warfare in this huge rivalry game.
Pittsburgh possesses a loaded front seven even without star inside linebacker Devin Bush who is out for the year after tearing his ACL two weeks ago.
The Steelers lead the league in sacks with 26 because they can rush and generate tremendous pressure in a multitude of different ways with their loaded and diverse group of defensive tackles and outside linebackers.
“The Steelers’ pass rush, when you’re preparing for them, it really starts there,” Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said. “They’ll blitz, they’ll rush five, and they’ve got really good pass rushers. They’ve got guys that really push the pocket well inside. We’ve got to take that into account every time we pass. There’s a lot of different ways schematically that you can help that out. But the bottom line is you’ve got to execute, understand who we’re playing.”
The edge of Baltimore’s offensive line will be up to the challenge of handling arguably the best edge-rushing tandem in the league in two-time Pro Bowler T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree thanks to the stalwart tackle duo of Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr.
However, the interior will have their hands full with three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cam Heyward and underrated stud Stephon Tuitt line up next to him.
It will be up to center Matt Skura, left guard Bradley Bozeman and rookie right guard Tyre Phillips to give their quarterback enough time to make his reads and provide a clean pocket for him to step up into to make throws.
QB Lamar Jackson v S Minkah Fitzpatrick
The reigning league MVP had one of his worst passing performances in his only career start against the vaunted Steelers defense in Week Five last season.
He completed 19 of 28 passes for 161 yards and one touchdown passing but threw three interceptions for the first and only time in his career. Jackson was also sacked a career-high five times in that game as well.
In order to ensure that he doesn’t struggle like that throwing the ball this time around, he’ll need to know where the Steelers star free safety and his fellow 2019 First Team All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick is at all times.
While Fitzpatrick didn’t coral one of Jackson’s three interceptions in the Ravens 26-23 win that day, his instincts and nose for the ball make him a threat to come down with it any time it’s in the air and Jackson is fully aware of that.
“Minkah, he’s a ball hawk. He’s great at doing his thing, coming down making tackles, catching picks, scoring on pick-sixes,” Jackson said. “I feel like our receivers and our offense is going to be ready. We’re going to have to see when the game comes on.”
In addition to being a factor in coverage, Fitzpatrick will likely be heavily involved in the effort to limit what Jackson does in the ground game with his legs. He gashed the Steelers for 70 yards on 14 carries last time they played.
Pittsburgh might bring more safeties into the box and closer to the line of scrimmage like so many other teams have done against the Ravens this year to help defend his electric rushing ability as well as discourage him from throwing to the middle of the field and forcing him to throw outside instead.