By Norm Elrod
Heading into November, the AFC North is basically up for grabs. What else is new? The Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2-1) lead in the standings, even though the Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) have more wins. The Baltimore Ravens (4-4), who have struggled a little of late, are right there too. And while the Cleveland Browns (2-5-1), led by an interim coach and a rookie quarterback, are going nowhere this season, they still could play the spoiler.
The Steelers visit Baltimore to meet the Ravens in Week 9, in what promises to be another physical matchup; the Ravens won the teams’ first game 26-14 in Week 4. With a few hiccups, Pittsburgh’s offense has been humming along most of the season, even without Le’Veon Bell. Likewise, Baltimore’s defense, despite its recent skid, has been formidable in its own right. According to Ravens legend Ray Lewis, “the Ravens are still the number-one defense in football.”
So much of the recent news out of Pittsburgh has involved off-the-field stories, and bad ones at that. But coach Mike Tomlin has done a good job of keeping his team focused on football. Their record shows it, and their stats show it.
Ben Roethlisberger is putting up the second-most passing yards per game (318) this season, while throwing twice as many touchdowns (14) as interceptions (7). He’s only been sacked 10 times, which might be the key to his performance. Give an experienced quarterback enough time, and he’ll make you pay. Six teams have given up 10 sacks or fewer, and each features one of the game’s better passers.
James Conner continues to do an admirable job filling in for Le’Veon Bell. He’s fourth in the League in rushing yards per game (85.6) and second in touchdowns (9). Conner has also been a formidable weapon out of the backfield in the passing attack, amassing 31 receptions for 323 yards over seven games. Last week he torched the Browns for 216 total yards.
While Roethlisberger and Conner have been hot, their garish stats don’t come without help. Much of the credit for Pittsburgh’s production actually belongs to their offensive line, which might be the best in the NFL. The Good Squad, as they’ve been dubbed, keeps pass rushers out of the pocket and opens up holes in the running game. Playing without right tackle Marcus Gilbert last week, they gave up just one sack to the Browns, the Steelers’ first in three games, while enabling Conner’s strong performance. They also allowed just one sack in their previous matchup with the Ravens.
The Steelers’ line will be tested by a Ravens defense that is looking to reassert itself. Recent performances haven’t been a good indication of what the unit can do. Cam Newton had his way in the Carolina Panthers’ 36-21 win last week. Before that, Drew Brees brought his New Orleans Saints back with a 17-point fourth quarter after being held to a touchdown the previous three quarters.
The Ravens like to blitz the quarterback, and had trouble containing the mobile Cam Newton last week. That performance was unusual for a team that leads the NFL with 27 sacks this season, including a franchise-record 11 sacks against the Tennessee Titans in Week 6. While they won’t duplicate that level of success against a stout Steelers offensive line, they should give Ben problems. Their secondary gives up only 196 yards per game, second fewest in the League. And their run defense, bolstered by strong defenders all along that front line, is also stingy.
The Steelers’ defense has also been a little uneven in the first half of the season. And one of their worst games came against the Ravens in Week 4, when Joe Flacco went off for 363 yards and two touchdowns. They’ve improved since then, holding the Atlanta Falcons and Bengals, offenses capable of scoring, to 17 and 21 points respectively. They shut down the Browns in their second meeting. The team’s resurgence after a lackluster start is due, at least in part, to individual performances all across the unit, from Stephen Tuitt to T.J. Watt to Joe Haden.
They’ll face a Ravens offense that’s been a little better than average. While they erupted for 47 points in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, they also put up a paltry 9 points against the marginally better Browns in Week 5. Both games are outliers for a mundane offense that’seems to be good for about three touchdowns each week.
Joe Flacco is still Joe Flacco, steady but not stellar. He’s averaging 282 passing yards per game and just 6.6 yards per attempt, while completing around 61.1% of his passes. Interestingly enough, Flacco leads the NFL in pass attempts, tied with Andrew Luck. He has the weapons to get the ball down the field — John Brown is a solid deep threat — and does on occasion.
The Ravens’ running game, however, isn’t much of a threat, and that could be limiting the passing game. Alex Collins gains well under four yards per carry and has yet to break off a 20+-yard gain. He’s not a receiving threat out of the backfield.
The marquee matchup is clearly the Steelers’ offense against the Ravens’ defense. Can the Ravens vaunted D contain Roethlisberger and Conner, not to mention Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the outside? Which side will prevail in the battle of the trenches?
The teams’ stronger units are evenly matched, so the game will likely hinge on each team’s other squad. Pittsburgh has the advantage there. The Ravens’ suspect offensive line is banged up, and the Steelers’ aggressive defense is rounding into form. They should be able to contain an immobile Flacco and limit his success down the field.
As SportsLine analyst Mike Tierney sees it:
Baltimore’s offensive line might need to send out for reinforcements. LT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), LG Alex Lewis (neck) and RT James Hurst (back) have been absent from practice. A backup is ailing, too, and a player from the practice squad could start. This bodes ill against a defense with two dozen sacks, equaling the second most in the league. Though Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger hurt his index finger, it’s on his left hand. He has excelled with worse.