A full day of Thanksgiving football was supposed to culminate with this classic AFC North rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, but COVID-19 issues in Baltimore forced the NFL to move the game to Sunday. National audience or not, this contest is no less important. The 6-4 Ravens have lost three of their last four games, including a Week 8 thriller vs. Pittsburgh. The Steelers, meanwhile, have no blemishes on their 10-0 record. No matter the record, these teams are always capable of providing a great thrill. With a lot to prove, this game will say a lot about these teams heading into the home stretch. Here are what both of these teams need to do in order to guarantee a victory:
Keys to the game for the Baltimore Ravens:
1. Stop T.J. Watt and the Steelers’ pass rush
A dangerous trend that has been developing throughout the season for the Ravens is the amount of pressure that Lamar Jackson is seeing. Part of this is due to the losses of Ronnie Stanley via injury and Marshal Yanda via retirement. Jackson has already been sacked 24 times through 10 games this season — he took only 23 all of last season. Furthermore, Baltimore’s offensive line has given up 74 pressures (7.4 per game), which is far too many. It certainly doesn’t help that the Steelers sacked Jackson four times in the aforementioned 28-24 victory in Week 8. The Steelers lead the league in both sacks and QB hits with 38 and 99, respectively. If Baltimore wants to be able to run any of its offense well, especially without Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins, it is going to have to stop the Steelers from getting to Jackson. Because of the increased amount of pressure this season, Jackson has been prone to mistakes. He has already thrown as many interceptions through 10 games (6) as he did all of last season. Much of this is because he is just not doing well under pressure. In order for the Ravens to avenge their Week 8 loss to the Steelers, they have to figure out a way to give Jackson a clean pocket to throw to his receivers.
2. Bring down Ben Roethlisberger
Even though star QB Ben Roethlisberger is not the quickest guy in the world, he sure knows how to maneuver around the pocket and avoid getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage. A lot of the reason Roethisberger is able to avoid getting sacked is due to a solid offensive line and his big frame of 6-5, 240 pounds. This season, Roethlisberger has only been sacked 10 times, which is 31st in the NFL. In Week 8, Big Ben only suffered two sacks, tied for a season-high, and had a relatively clean pocket for most of the day. Furthermore, Pittsburgh has not conceded a sack since Week 8, and Roethlisberger has been able to play clean football for the most part as he only has five interceptions on the season and only one in Pittsburgh’s past four games. Roethlisberger cannot be allowed to have all day in the pocket or else he will be able to get the ball away to his array of great receivers. The Ravens currently rank eighth in the league in sacks with 27, but Baltimore has only averaged 1.25 sacks in its last four games. The most sacks Baltimore has had in its past four games is two against the Steelers and the Titans.
3. Protect the ball
As mentioned earlier, turnovers have been a huge issue for Baltimore this season. Despite the fact that Jackson has six interceptions already, Jackson has also fumbled the ball a total of six times with three of them being lost to the opposing team. Two of these lost fumbles came against the Steelers in Week 8. Turnovers were a huge reason for Baltimore giving up an early 17-7 lead to the Steelers as it allowed them to gain more confidence and eventually get things going on offense. A costly turnover also did in Baltimore against Tennessee in Week 11. Besides not allowing an immense amount of pressure, Baltimore must do a better job of protecting the football. This team currently has 12 turnovers on the season, which ranks as the 17th-most in the NFL; however, it is not necessarily the quantity of turnovers that has hurt, but rather the timing of them. This is what has prevented Baltimore from being better this season. Against New England in Week 10, the Ravens had a chance to drive down the field and score points before halftime until Jackson threw an interception. This allowed New England to cling to an early lead and build on that lead coming out of the half. There is no way that Baltimore can win this game with the amount of positive COVID cases and injuries the team has if it can’t protect the ball on offense.
Keys to the game for the Pittsburgh Steelers:
1. Continue to get the ball to Diontae Johnson
Despite rookie sensation Chase Claypool and star wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster getting the bulk of the attention this season for the undefeated Steelers, one could contend that Diontae Johnson has been a major reason for the team’s success, especially as of late. Johnson was largely a non-factor in the first matchup between these two teams, but his production since speaks volumes. In the last two games alone, Johnson has 227 yards and a touchdown on 18 receptions. It is clear that he is becoming one of the focal points on this offense. In the first matchup, Johnson only had one reception for 6 yards, which made it difficult for Pittsburgh to get points early in that one. This time around, expect Johnson to have a bigger role. When Johnson has been fully healthy, he has garnered about 30% of the team’s total targets for an individual game. This is a guy that Roethlisberger has to go to early and often in order to make the offense click. Success for Claypool and Smith-Schuster will come, but Johnson may be the most important piece to Pittsburgh making a potential Super Bowl run.
2. Contain Gus Edwards and the Ravens’ run game
Even though Baltimore’s offense has not been the well-oiled machine it was last season, it still remains the top rush offense in the league at 160.5 yards per game. Part of what made Baltimore so difficult to defend the first time around for Pittsburgh was the rush offense. Jackson only completed 13 of his 28 pass attempts for 208 yards, and the rush offense had 265 yards on the game thanks to the diverse trio of JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Jackson. Baltimore is always going to be a run-first offense, and it seems safe to assume they will go to this formula once again. With Dobbins and Ingram out due to COVID, Baltimore will lean on running back Gus Edwards to shoulder the load. Edwards was highly effective in the first matchup as he ran for 87 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries (5.4 yards per carry). Pittsburgh has one of the best rush defenses in the league, but it seems like the Ravens may have figured it out in Week 8 with their array of different options and backs. With Baltimore being so limited due to the pandemic in Week 12, Pittsburgh cannot afford to get down big again and allow more big chunk plays that permit Baltimore to control the clock and the game. Pittsburgh cannot give up 265 yards on the ground if it wants to sweep the Ravens this season.
3. Get James Conner started
Although Pittsburgh has some great receivers, the run game has been less appealing. Pittsburgh currently has the 12th-worst rushing offense in the league at 102.8 yards per game. James Conner has had an inconsistent career at this point in large part due to injuries. This season, Conner’s highest rushing yardage output has been 109 yards in a Week 3 game against the Texans. Conner’s production has been similar to his rookie season, but there are still instances this season where he doesn’t garner as many rushes as he should get. Against Baltimore in Week 8, Conner was largely ineffective, as he averaged a little over three yards per carry en route to rushing for 47 yards and a score. Even with Pittsburgh’s great passing offense, the Steelers should try to follow the route that the Patriots and Titans took the past two weeks: expose the Ravens’ rush defense. In other words, the Steelers should use the Ravens’ own offensive formula against them in order to make sure Pittsburgh does not get down as much as it did last time and actually control this game from thestart.
Stats from: ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference