And then there was one.
Undefeated team in the NFL, that is. The Steelers are 6-0 courtesy of a 27-24 win at Tennessee last Sunday that was a near-perfect example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They played a stellar first half and built a 27-7 lead by the early third quarter. Then, they dipped into the “how to blow a big lead” playbook by giving up a quick score on defense that flipped the momentum and authoring a series of conservative possessions with the occasional turnover on offense. Not until Tennessee kicker Stephen Gostkowski unexpectedly pushed wide a game-tying field goal in the final seconds was the victory secure. Mike Tomlin likes to remind us that style points don’t matter. Thank God for that, as the Steelers performance over the final twenty-five minutes was about as stylish as a powder-blue leisure suit.
And yet, here they are. 6-0, first place in the AFC North and plenty of time to rest on those laurels. Wait a second… strike that. I’m being told they have a game in Baltimore against the 5-1 Ravens on Sunday. So much for celebrations…
Pittsburgh against Baltimore. If there’s a rivalry in the NFL that is more fierce and consistently more meaningful, I’d like to see it (NFC East fans, don’t go there with your Philly-New York or Washington-Dallas garbage… that division is a glorified Big 10 right now. And all of you Seattle-San Francisco people can stop, too. You’re in the toddler phase compared to Steelers-Ravens).
The thing that jumps out about Pittsburgh-Baltimore over the years is how close the games have been. From 2012-2018, the Steelers and Ravens played fifteen times, with Baltimore owning an 8-7 advantage and a +8 point differential (the Ravens won both meetings last season, but those can be largely discounted due to Ben Roethlisberger’s absence). Astoundingly, nine of those contests were decided by four points or less, with four games going to overtime.
The other defining feature of the rivalry is its physicality. Few teams are as tough up front, play defense as enthusiastically or simply hit as violently as these two. The hitting in their matchups has bordered on inhumane at times. From Ryan Clark knocking out Willis McGahee back in 2008 to Earl Thomas’s vicious shot on Mason Rudolph last season, Pittsburgh-Baltimore often feels like a gladiator death match.
And yet, there is a mutual respect between these two franchises that defies the savagery on the field. Pittsburgh and Baltimore, despite the ferocity of their competition, recognize themselves in each other. Both franchises stress stability at the management and coaching levels. Both build and restock their talent largely through the draft. Both exude professionalism and dignity when dealing with their veteran players. And both, of course, emphasize a physical brand of football that is beloved by their blue-collar fanbases. Whereas Steelers’ fans tend to despise fellow AFC North resident Cincinnati, whose franchise has lacked character for over a generation, and, until recently, felt little more than pity for a hapless Cleveland team, many have come to begrudgingly accept the fact that Baltimore, while remaining a bitter rival whom they root against every week, is worthy of their respect.
It should be a great game on Sunday, then, when the Steelers and Ravens kick off in Baltimore. What should we look for from the Steelers in that contest? Here are the keys to victory for Pittsburgh:
Get aggressive against the Ravens’ passing attack
Conventional wisdom says the Steelers’ need to shut down Baltimore’s league-leading run game (164.3 ypg) to win on Sunday. But in Baltimore’s lone defeat this season, a 34-20 setback to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens ran the ball quite well. Baltimore had 158 yards on the ground and averaged 7.5 yards per rush in that contest. The key to Kansas City’s success on defense was forcing Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson into a miserable passing day. Jackson went 15-28 for a paltry 98 yards, was sacked four times and averaged 3.5 yards per passing attempt. Jackson rushed for 83 yards but, in making him one-dimensional by stifling the passing attack, Kansas City was able to live with the rushing yardage.
How did the Chiefs do it? Primarily, by playing aggressive man-to-man coverage, disguising the roles of their safeties, blitzing Jackson from a variety of looks and remaining disciplined in their rush lanes. The man-coverage forced Jackson to make accurate throws into small windows and the pressure confined him to the pocket, where he is less comfortable than when he can get outside and improvise.
Here’s an example. On this 3rd and 6 play, Kansas City defended Baltimore’s 4×1 empty formation in what appeared to be a cover-1 look. They pressed the three Baltimore receivers closest to Jackson to take away his simplest throws and gave a cushion to running back J.K. Dobbins, who was split wide to the left and did not appear to be in Jackson’s progression. Meanwhile, Kansas City bracketed slot receiver Marquis Brown with their nickel corner and single-high safety, who wasn’t playing man-free at all but instead was poised to attack any inside-breaking route. The look fooled Jackson, who thought he had an easy completion to Brown, and nearly resulted in an interception:
(GIF courtesy of footballfilmroom.com)
The Steelers have run several variations of this look with Minkah Fitzpatrick coming down from his safety position in the robber role. Memorably, they baited Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield into a pick-six two weeks ago when he read the Steelers pre-snap look as a man-under, two-deep scheme. Mayfield, believing the safeties would bail into their deep zones and the middle of the field would be open, opted to throw the inside slant to his slot receiver:
According to Joe Julius at Football Film Room, Kansas City played some form of man coverage on 50% of Baltimore’s pass plays in their week three contest, including a heavy dose of cover-0 blitzes. Only the Ravens have blitzed more than the Steelers this season (more on that momentarily). Baltimore is blitzing on 46.1% of its snaps while the Steelers are at 39.8%. Those blitzes have paid off handsomely for the Steelers, as they lead the league in sacks (26), hurry percentage (15.3) and quarterback pressures (82).
Many teams eschew man-coverage against Baltimore because, should Jackson escape the pocket, defenders who are running down the field with receivers have their backs turned. This can lead to Jackson making chunk plays with his legs. It worked for Kansas City, however, who did a good job both applying pressure and maintaining their rush lanes. The Chiefs are just an average cover team (they rank 13th in the league in total pass defense) while the Steelers are among the best (they currently rank fourth). It seems likely, then, we’ll get a heavy dose of blitzes from Keith Butler’s defense.
One caveat: with Baltimore on their bye last Sunday, the Ravens have had two weeks to study and prepare for Pittsburgh’s blitz packages. Butler will have to get creative by breaking tendencies and showing Jackson some looks he hasn’t yet seen. A slow mind often equals slow feet in the game of football, so if the Steelers can clutter Jackson’s brain with their disguises, it could go a long way towards limiting his effectiveness as both a passer and a runner.
Beat the blitz on offense
On the other side of the ball, more of the same can be anticipated. Baltimore blitzed the daylights out of Philadelphia two weeks ago, recording six sacks and harassing quarterback Carson Wentz relentlessly. Many of their blitzes were fairly simple designs, like the one seen below. This is a five-man pressure with a gap exchange from the Mike (middle) linebacker and the left defensive end. An additional edge rusher creates an overload to that side.
The Eagles do not handle this particularly well. The right guard stays too long on the pinching end rather than releasing him to the center and picking up the Mike. The late switch puts the center in a bad position and allows the end to compress the pocket, preventing Wentz from stepping up and making a throw. Both edge rushers create pressure and stay disciplined in their rush lanes, nullifying an escape to the outside.
Wentz, for his part, does not recognize the coverage quickly enough. Baltimore plays loose man with a trap concept on the outside receiver, John Hightower (82), who is running slant to the middle of the field. The corner to that side releases Hightower on the in-cut and sinks to help on the wheel from the #3 receiver. The single-high safety (not pictured) is tasked with coming down to defend Hightower. Had Wentz seen the early bail from the corner he could have hit Hightower quickly and given him room to run to make the first down. Wentz holds the ball, however, and is taken down for a sack.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger is far more accomplished at blitz and coverage recognition. Consider the photo below. On a 3rd and 11 against Tennessee, the Titans gave Roethlisberger this pre-snap look:
With six defenders at the line of scrimmage, four players locked in what looks like man-coverage and a single-high safety, Roethlisberger can be pretty certain the blitz is coming. But who is coming and who may be dropping into coverage? What is the safety doing? Is he playing center-field or in a robber role? There’s no clear way to know.
Rather than mess around with that sort of guessing game, Roethlisberger does the safest thing he can: throw quick to the single receiver, Diontae Johnson (circled in the photo):
Johnson’s route is so shallow and the ball is out of Roethlisberger’s hand so fast that the safety has no time to rob it and the corner cannot get into proper tackling position. The combination of Roethlisberger’s recognition skills and Johnson’s athleticism render this blitz from Tennessee useless.
Baltimore’s ability to disguise their blitzes, coupled with their recent acquisition of pass-rushing ace Yannick Ngakoue from the Minnesota Vikings, adds intrigue to this particular cat-and-mouse game. What looks will defensive coordinator Don Martindale scheme up that Roethlisberger has not yet seen from the Ravens, and how will Martindale employ Ngakoue, who is yet to take a snap for his new team?
Conversely, can Pittsburgh’s line keep Roethlisberger clean long enough for their receivers to exploit one-on-one coverage? Will the Steelers be able to create match-ups for players like Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron that take advantage of their size and athleticism against Baltimore’s safeties and linebackers?
If Sunday’s contest does turn in to a blitz-fest, the metrics favor the Steelers. Per NextGen stats, Roethlisberger leads the NFL in completion percentage versus the blitz in 2020 at 70.5 and also has the fastest time to release (2.29 seconds). Jackson, meanwhile, was solid against the blitz in 2019 but has not been nearly as good this season:
The quarterback who handles the pressure better could determine the outcome. And if past is prologue, it will be a physical contest that isn’t decided until the final minutes. It’s Pittsburgh against Baltimore for first place in the AFC North.
Buckle up, Steelers fans…