In the understatement of the year, the Steelers really missed Le’Veon Bell against the Ravens. Pittsburgh has lots of other weapons besides Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger played the best football of his career in 2014. But Bell’s absence played right into the hands of the Ravens defense on this night.
Aside from the glimmer of hope that a couple of early runs by Ben Tate provided the Steelers, their rushing attack was all but absent against Baltimore. This left them in lots of 3rd-and-long situations. Converting on 3rd-and-long often requires longer developing routes, and those require time to throw – time Roethlisberger did not have.
The Ravens have a rotation of defensive tackles, ends, and outside linebackers that are an absolute handful. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil can win with speed and power off the edge. Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams push the pocket from the interior. Linebacker Pernell McPhee aligns outside and inside, and can penetrate with quickness. Chris Canty and Courtney Upshaw have the power to help collapse the pocket as well. This is a unit that stays fresh all game, and because they are so deep, there is no breather for opposing offensive lines. They dominated this side of the ball against the Steelers.
Pressure has the ability to affect every passer in the game. Ben Roethlisberger was no exception on Saturday night. He didn’t pull the trigger on some throws that could have been big plays. On one play, the Steelers called a fake wide receiver screen with a go-route to the side of the fake. The cornerback to that side (Rashaan Melvin) bit hard, and Big Ben had Markus Wheaton streaking downfield for what would have been an easy touchdown. But Roethlisberger got rid of the ball quickly to Heath Miller inside despite the fact that Wheaton was the design of the play. Perhaps it was the cumulative effects of pressure. Ben was sacked on the previous play, and with linebacker Pernell McPhee stunting inside towards him, he was looking to get the ball out of his hands.
On another play, Big Ben had Antonio Brown open in the end zone. Roethlisberger put a little too much air on his throw, and this gave the safety to that side time to get to Brown and knock him out of bounds before he could get both feet down (Brown also didn’t need to jump). Roethlisberger was off just enough to thwart the Steelers passing game. The Ravens’ secondary is their vulnerability on defense, but the Steelers weren’t able to take advantage.
This played right into the hands of the Ravens offense. They were able to be patient and stick with the running game. They were able to utilize their staple “21” and “12” personnel. Flacco was able to stay under center and either throw off of play-action or take advantage of isolation routes on the outside with the defense condensed in the middle to stop the run. No one throws those outside isolation routes better than Flacco. He is also 7-2 in his last 9 playoff games with 20 TD passes and just 2 interceptions. His postseason play doesn’t garner much attention for some reason, though.
This week in Foxborough, the Ravens will need to play a similar game. They won’t win if they have to play catch-up for long stretches of the night. Their defense will need to get after Tom Brady and keep him from taking advantage of their secondary. If the score is kept close, the Ravens will be able to maintain their balanced approach on offense. This gives them the best chance to win.