December 23, 2016
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell rushes the ball against Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Zach Orr in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
After the euphoria of Sunday's 27-26 home win against the Philadelphia Eagles had passed, the Ravens defense settled in to review film of the game. And the viewing was cringeworthy.
Defensive linemen getting pushed aside. Linebackers missing tackles. Players either not staying in their gaps or jumping into ones that were not theirs to fill.
Those errors contributed to Philadelphia's Ryan Mathews rushing for 128 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries and the Eagles gaining 169 yards and two scores on 38 attempts. It also led to a disconcerting feeling among the defensive players.
"Honestly, after talking to everybody, it kind of felt like we had lost," rookie defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. "Just the pride we take in stopping teams in the run and not letting people score all those points, we were definitely disappointed. It was a tough two days, but we put everything behind us, and that's something we definitely don't want to have and can't have."
The Ravens have built a long-standing, well-documented tradition of stopping the run. It started with standouts such as Ray Lewis, Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa and has continued with current players such as Zachary Orr, Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley.
Since 2012, when Dean Pees succeededChuck Pagano as the defensive coordinator, only 13 out of 78 running backs have cracked the 100-yard mark against the Ravens. That is part of the reason why the players are not sounding the alarm.
"It doesn't matter, but don't think that what happened on Sunday, we're going, 'Damn, I don't know what's going to happen on Sunday. I don't know what's going to happen with the run defense,'" nose tackle Brandon Williams said. "No, it's not one of those things. We've been stopping the run all year. It was just one team that got a little bit of the best of us. It doesn't mean it's all, 'Abandon ship.' We're good. That's not going to happen. We're not worried about it. Stuff like that, it's like, 'Crap, that happened. Let's fix it,' and we're onto the next one."
That next challenge for the defense is significant. On Christmas Day, the Ravens (8-6) will attempt to take one step closer to capturing their third AFC North title under coach John Harbaugh by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) at Heinz Field. And to do that, the unit must concentrate on stopping running back Le'Veon Bell.
Although he missed the first three games of the season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, Bell has wasted little time reasserting himself as one of the top running backs in the league.
He leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage per game (158.8), ranks second in rushing yards per game (104.2) and total receptions by a running back (72), and third in total rushing yards (1,146) and yards from scrimmage (1,747).
In his past five starts, Bell has averaged 142.6 yards and has scored five touchdowns. He has also averaged 5.4 catches and 48.2 receiving yards and is one of several catalysts in Pittsburgh's five-game winning streak.
"It has been great being able to be a balanced offense," quarterback Ben Roethlisbergersaid of Bell's value. "Teams have been doing a lot of two-high [safeties] stuff, taking away the pass, taking away A.B. [wide receiver Antonio Brown], the big plays. They are giving us the underneath stuff, and that is running the ball and short passes. For him to be able to do what he has been able to do has just really helped us."
Perhaps surprisingly, Bell has not fared well against the Ravens, who have allowed him to reach 100 yards just once in six meetings and the end zone only twice. In the Ravens' 21-14 win Nov. 6, Bell managed just 32 yards on 14 carries and 38 yards on six receptions.
Pees said Bell is unlike any opposing running back he has coached against in 38 years of experience.
"Teams get in trouble because he's such a patient runner and when he does those stutter steps, he's a unique, unique running back," Pees said. "There's really nobody that has his style that I've ever seen. When he does that, he's just so patient and all of a sudden, when a guy just jumps off a block, he's got great vision, and he hits it. You've got to rely on everybody being where they're supposed to be. Don't lie to the guy next to you. If a linebacker's supposed to be here and you're supposed to be here, don't all of a sudden get inside and now both of you are inside, and he's going outside. Everybody's got to do their job on this one."
Neither Pees nor the players were willing to share what they addressed since Sunday to fix the running lanes that Mathews and the Eagles found. ("Like I'd tell you if we did anything," Pees said with a smirk.) But defensive end Lawrence Guy is confident that the run defense that shows up Christmas Day won't be in the mood to offer gifts to Bell or any other Steelers running back.
"He's a challenging running back, one of the best running backs in the league," Guy said. "So when you go against an opponent like that, you've got to figure out, 'What can you do to help?' In Game 1 when we played them, we figured it out. We know they're going to attack us a little bit differently. So we're going to come out there and play good fundamental football."