Saturday, November 01, 2014
Ravens vs. Steelers preview
By Scott Brown and Jamison Hensley
October 31, 2014
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries on Sunday night at Heinz Field. Both teams are 5-3 and a half-game out of first place in the AFC North. The Ravens beat the Steelers, 26-6, when the teams met in early September and they will try to sweep their bitter rival for the first time since 2011.
ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 8:30 p.m. ET game.
Brown: Jamison, how will the Ravens compensate for the loss of Jimmy Smith at cornerback and how bad is the timing for the Ravens to face Ben Roethlisberger when they are so thin at cornerback?
Hensley: To characterize losing Smith as “bad timing” is an understatement. It’s atrocious. Smith, who is sidelined with a foot injury, is not only the Ravens’ best cornerback but he’s also among the top five cornerbacks in the NFL. The Ravens have no one who can replace his combination of size, speed, aggressiveness and intelligence. Even the most optimistic supporter of the Ravens couldn’t think Dominique Franks, who was out of football for the first five weeks, can fill the void left by Smith.
The only way the Ravens can lessen the blow is with their pass rush. When Roethlisberger threw 522 yards and six touchdowns, he was hit twice by the Colts. The Ravens’ top three pass-rushers -- Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee -- have combined for 14.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hits. Over the last five meetings with Roethlisberger, the Ravens have sacked him 10 times. If they can put that pressure on Roethlisberger, it will give him less time to find the open receiver.
While a lot of the focus has been on Roethlisberger, how have his weapons improved in the passing game? With the Ravens being without their top cornerback, will it be tough for them to match up with the Steelers?
Brown: The Steelers and Roethlisberger have to be salivating over the prospect of attacking the Ravens’ secondary. No Smith and a defense that is thin at cornerback has to reckon with a receiving corps that has changed considerably since the Ravens soundly beat the Steelers in Baltimore. Justin Brown, who lost a fumble inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line early in the teams’ Sept. 11 game, isn’t even in the picture at wide receiver right now.
Rookie Martavis Bryant, who has been a revelation in his first two NFL games, and reliable veteran Lance Moore will play against the Ravens after not dressing the first time the two AFC North rivals played. Those two along with Markus Wheaton should make the Ravens pay if they focus too much attention to two-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. Brown, meanwhile, opens things up for the other receivers, including tight end Heath Miller, who is coming off his third career 100-yard receiving game.
Baltimore ran the ball effectively against the Steelers on Sept. 11 and it looks like Justin Forsett has really emerged for the Ravens. Has he been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises this season and how are the roles defined in the Ravens’ backfield?
Hensley: It would’ve been difficult for anyone to predict this type of production from Forsett. In training camp, he was the No. 4 running back behind Ray Rice, Bernard Pierceand rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. Halfway through the Ravens’ season, Forsett is fourth in the NFL with 571 rushing yards. The Ravens needed Forsett to step up after Rice was cut and Pierce struggled to stay healthy. What stands out about Forsett is his vision to find the running lanes in the zone blocking scheme and determination to break tackles. The reason the Ravens signed Forsett was his familiarity with Gary Kubiak’s offense after playing in Houston two years ago. He has remained atop the depth chart by averaging 5.5 yards per carry, the third-best average in the league.
Forsett is the primary ball carrier and gets about 70 percent of the snaps. His work could be affected this week by a knee injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice. Pierce had been the Ravens’ back when they get in the red zone. But he was a healthy scratch last Sunday after averaging less than three yards per carry in three of five games. So, Taliaferro has become the top backup and scored two red zone touchdowns in Cincinnati.
The run game has been one of the most improved areas on offense, along with the Ravens’ line. Joe Flacco wasn't sacked in the first meeting, but the Steelers were able to get a lot of pressure Sunday on Andrew Luck. Should the Ravens expect a significantly better pass rush on Sunday night?
Brown: That depends on whether the Steelers can get a big lead early against the Ravens. The Steelers’ defense fed off the offense’s fast start Sunday and an early 21-3 lead forced the Colts to throw, throw and throw some more. Indianapolis had just 10 rushes in its 51-34 loss to Pittsburgh and two of those were scrambles by Luck. Making the Colts one-dimensional on offense allowed the Steelers to really go after Luck and they hit him a lot.
The Steelers probably won’t be as fortunate against the Ravens. They struggled to stop the run when the two rivals played earlier this season and teams with zone-blocking schemes have given the Steelers fits. Unless the Steelers jump out to a big lead early for the second consecutive game they will get a steady dose of Forsett and Taliaferro. That alone should temper the pressure they are able to put on Flacco.
Coach John Harbaugh made a comment earlier this week about how the Ravens are comfortable playing at Heinz Field. What did you make of that comment and can it be traced to the Ravens winning in Pittsburgh in 2010, 2011 and 2012?
Hensley: That’s exactly what Harbaugh meant by that comment. He was saying that the Ravens know what it takes to win in Pittsburgh. You can’t blame Harbaugh for taking a confident stance, especially considering the circumstances. It was just a week ago when the Ravens sat atop the AFC North after winning five of their previous six games. Now, after losing in dramatic fashion in Cincinnati, the Ravens could potentially drop to last place with a loss in Pittsburgh. By saying the Ravens are comfortable at Heinz, Harbaugh is telling his players that they can win in Pittsburgh because they’ve done it before.
The Ravens beat the Steelers earlier this season by keeping them out of the end zone. While the Ravens rank second in the league in fewest points allowed, the Steelers defense uncharacteristically ranks 16th in yards allowed and 21st in points given up. Do these numbers truly reflect how the defense is playing?
Brown: Unfortunately for the Steelers, they do. There were questions about the defense, and that was before the Steelers lost starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and cornerback Ike Taylor to significant injuries. Cornerback Cortez Allen, whom the Steelers signed to a five-year, $25 million contract right before the start of the regular season, has struggled so much that the fourth-year veteran has been demoted twice in the past two weeks.
The Steelers have also had issues stopping the run and an offense that can stay balanced is going to give them problems. The defense has shown signs of improvement and it has generated consistent pressure on the quarterback as well as takeaways during the Steelers’ two-game winning streak. If that continues against the Ravens the Steelers have a great chance of improving to 7-4 with games against the lowly Jets and the two-win Titans next up on the schedule.