Three things to watch for as the Ravens welcome the Steelers to Baltimore

The Baltimore Ravens are looking to snap a two-game losing streak this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium when they welcome their AFC North rival – the Pittsburgh Steelers – to town in a colossal divisional contest.

The Ravens’ season appears to be at a crossroads as they sit at 4-4 after dropping three of their last four games. Last week’s loss was perhaps the most frustrating, a 36-21 setback against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.

The Ravens started off well once again with an impressive drive to open the game capped off with an Alex Collins 14-yard touchdown run. The Ravens’ defense forces a punt on the first Carolina drive of the day but the Panthers downed the punt at the Baltimore one-yard line.

An inexplicably poor pass from Lamar Jackson to Willie Snead on third-and-one forced the Ravens to punt. Coach Harbaugh deployed a fake punt from his own 10-yard line but it was called back due to an illegal shift, a call that befuddled the Ravens.

It all fell apart from there. The Panthers would score touchdowns on their next three drives of the first half before adding in a field goal as the half expired after an atrocious interception from Joe Flacco that put the Ravens behind 24-7. The Ravens committed three turnovers in all with Flacco adding a second interception and Collins again fumbling.

Flacco did throw a second half touchdown to rookie tight end Mark Andrews to cut the lead to 27-14 late in the third quarter but the Panthers responded with nine play, 85-yard touchdown drive to put the game away. Jackson added a garbage time touchdown pass to Hayden Hurst to make the final score 36-21.

So the Ravens sit at 4-4 ahead of what will be a month-long home stand that will kick off against the Steelers this Sunday. Here’s what to watch for ahead of the matchup.

1) What does the offensive line look like this Sunday?

Heading into this week against the Steelers, the offensive line could potentially be without three of their five starters. Alex Lewis and James Hurst have each missed the last two games due to injury and the offensive line has struggled in both contests.

To add to the issues for the Ravens, last week reserve offensive linemen Bradley Bozeman was unavailable as well against the Panthers forcing Hroniss Grasu into the starting lineup. Grasu struggled throughout the contest and looked to be the culprit of a missed block that led to the Collins fumble.

Starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley left the game as well on Sunday but would return. At one point the Ravens had an offensive line of Jermaine Eluemunor, Grassu, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda, and Orlando Brown Jr from left to right. The Panthers were living in the backfield all day.

Keep an eye on the status of Stanley, Lewis, Hurst and Bozeman throughout the week as the Steelers rank tied for second in the NFL with 24 sacks on the season. They are led by second-year standout T.J. Watt who has seven sacks on the season. Bud Dupree, though much maligned at times, was extremely disruptive last week against the Browns despite not registering a sack.

All four linemen missed practice on Wednesday, so it will be interesting to see if any of them can make it back on the practice field Thursday or Friday ahead of Sunday’s match up.

If the Ravens offensive line isn’t healthy (healthier) this week, it could be another long week for Flacco.

2) How does the Ravens defense respond to adversity?

Does everyone remember all of the talk from two weeks ago about this being the best defense in the NFL?

The Ravens were fresh off a dominant 21-0 performance against the Tennessee Titans and had just broken the team record for sacks in a game with 11. They still had not given up a touchdown in the second half and they looked to have the swagger of the Ravens defenses of old even through the end of the third quarter of the next contest against the Saints.

And then the fourth quarter against the Saints happened but we walked away not feeling totally defeated about holding the Saints offense to 24 points albeit 17 of them came in the fourth quarter.

But last week was rock bottom for this unit. They had no answers for anything that Cam Newton and the Panthers offense threw at them. They finished the game with no sacks and very few hurries. Newton left the pocket because he wanted to, not because he was forced out. The Ravens will be looking to get their groove back this week. Jimmy Smith remains confident:

Smith is one of the many looking to rebound from a rough two weeks. The Ravens have just one sack since the Tennessee game and if you remove the 11-sack game from their numbers and replace it with their season average of two sacks per game, that would give them 18 sacks on the year ranking them tied for 21st.

This unit is not 2000 Ravens good as some suggested they could be after the first six weeks of the year. They don’t have to be. But they certainly need to play significantly better than they have in the past five quarters where they have surrendered 53 points. Keep in mind they had surrendered just 84 points in the previous 28 quarters combined.

The Steelers, as usual, aren’t lacking for weapons. We all know what Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster can do to opposing defenses. Add in James Conner who is performing at a top five level and tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James and this could prove to be another tough week for the defense.

Hey Mr. Leader of the defense remember this?

Your fan base says prove it:

3) Can the offense gain consistent traction?

The defense isn’t alone. The Ravens offense has been a here today and gone tomorrow kind of unit all season. While the pieces are there at the skill positions to become a more potent offense, untimely drops and inconsistent quarterback play coupled with offensive line injuries and turnovers have rendered the Ravens incapable of consistency.

This is telling. These are key drops too. Michael Crabtree dropped a potential game winning touchdown pass (and seemingly everything else that week) in Cleveland. Snead has had numerous costly drops on third and fourth down. Hurst has pitched in on the drop party on a consistent basis as well. The skill position players are better but it has been more of the same so far for the Ravens.

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While his weapons have let him down at times, Joe Flacco hasn’t exactly been lighting it up. Image Credit: Youtube

Flacco is not blameless either. While he has been putting together a decent season statistically (8th in the NFL in yards) he has had his fair share of clunkers. He has interceptions in three of the last four games including an absolutely horrid one near the end of the first half Sunday. His passer rating of 84.9 ranks 25th in the NFL.

We have discussed the troubles along the offensive line. Health can solve many of those struggles, but the running game struggled even when the offensive line was at full strength.

The Steelers enter the game with the NFL’s 15th-ranked total defense. They are 24th against the pass but rank sixth against the run. This may not be the week where the Ravens can look to run the ball effectively.

John Brown was effective in the Ravens 26-14 victory over Pittsburgh in September. Look for him to be the catalyst for the Ravens if they emerge victorious.

Predictions

Jake McDonnell- Steelers 27 Ravens 21

Jay Stavros- Steelers 31 Ravens 24

Nolan McGraw- Ravens 24 Steelers 20

Ian Schultz- Steelers 29 Ravens 23

Nolan has been right way more than the rest of us so let’s hope that trend continues. As far as my pick, I can’t see the Ravens with a depleted offensive line and a defense that is likely to be without Marlon Humphrey able to keep pace with the Steelers. The Ravens will keep it close throughout much of the contest but Pittsburgh prevails late sending the Ravens to the bye week at 4-5.

The Details:

  • When: Sunday, November 4, 2018, 1:00pm
  • Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD
  • Point Spread: Ravens -3,  O/U 47
  • Radio: 98 Rock/WBAL 1090 AM
  • TV: CBS
  • Commentary:  Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

Image Credit: AP

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