Three things to watch for as the Ravens head to Pittsburgh for Sunday Night Football

PITTSBURGH, PA — The Baltimore Ravens will depart for Pittsburgh this week to take on their AFC North Rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday Night Football at Heinz Field.

If it feels like the Ravens have played a night game in Pittsburgh every year for the last ten years or so, it’s because they nearly have:

It would be nice to see some balancing of the schedule, but the Ravens can’t spend too much time sulking. The Steelers will be coming into the game at 1-1-1, coming off their 30-27 road win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night. The Ravens will be looking for back-to-back wins after defeating the Denver Broncos last Sunday 27-14 in Baltimore.

Here are three things to watch for ahead of this pivotal AFC North matchup.

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James Hurst and Ronnie Stanley were sharp last week in containing Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Image Credit: Baltimore Sun

1) Does the offensive line put back-to-back good performances together?

Heading into last week’s contest, the biggest concern for the Ravens was how they were going to deal with the pass rush of Broncos linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.

Joe Flacco was sacked just twice in the contest, with Chubb recording one of them and Miller being shut out entirely. It was a bounce-back week for an offensive line that really struggled with Bengals esteemed pass rushers Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins two weeks ago.

The Steelers are currently tied for second in the NFL with 11 sacks to-date. Their pass-rushing group is led by second-year linebacker T.J. Watt who has recorded three sacks on the season. Watt also recorded seven sacks in his rookie year including one against the Ravens in the Steelers 39-38 win in Pittsburgh last year.

Fourth-year linebacker Bud Dupree also has a pair of sacks on the season and two career sacks against the Ravens.

If the Ravens’ offensive line can protect Flacco it could be a long night for the much-maligned Steelers pass defense that has given up 10 passing touchdowns in three games.

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John Brown will be looking to continue his strong start to the 2018 season. Image Credit: USA Today

2) Can the Ravens take advantage of the Steelers’ pass defense?

Speaking of that pass defense, which ranks fifth worst in the NFL surrendering 288 yards per game, if the Ravens are able to keep Flacco upright he could be in for another huge day.

The Steelers are coming off a performance in which they surrendered 411 yards and three touchdowns to Buccaneers journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. They are also two weeks removed from second-year sensation Patrick Mahomes lighting them up for 326 yards and six touchdowns.

Starting cornerback -the aptly named- Artie Burns was benched for a portion of the Bucs game and his replacement Coty Sensabaugh didn’t perform much better.

Joe Haden is on the other side of the defensive backfield for the Steelers and he has been dealing with a hamstring injury. Flacco and the Ravens have often went after Haden going back to his days in Cleveland but Haden has arguably gotten the better of that exchange with five career interceptions against the Ravens.

The Ravens would be better served to target whomever of their new three-headed monster in the receiving game is matched up with Burns or Sensabaugh. This will be one of the key match ups for the Ravens to exploit this week if they want to down their most hated rival.

The pass coverage struggles extend to the Steelers linebacking group that hasn’t been the same since the loss of Ryan Shazier. Opposing tight ends have caught 20 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns as well.

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Terrell Suggs will be hoping to spend a lot of time in the backfield with Big Ben on Sunday. Image Credit: WNST

3) Does the Ravens’ pass rush disrupt the flow of the Steelers offense and will it matter?

If you are a regular reader of three things to watch for and I hope that you are, this point will seem like a broken record.

It is however more important this week than in the past few that the Ravens pass rushing group of Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon, Tim Williams, and Za’Darius Smith live in the backfield on Sunday night.

The Steelers have arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Brown has gotten off to a slow start by his standards with 24 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. Smith-Schuster is off to a red hot start with 27 catches for 356 yards and a touchdown. With Jimmy Smith missing his fourth and final game due to suspension Sunday night, the Ravens can’t afford a repeat of Brown’s 11-catch, 213-yard week 14 performance from last season when the Ravens were without Smith.

Jesse James and Vance McDonald have given the Steelers’ pass-catching tight end threats as well, combining for 16 catches, 343 yards, and two touchdowns. Rookie Kenny Young, who performed well in pass coverage last week, will need to be sharp again.

In his last seven games against the Ravens in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger is 6-1, averaging 295 yards per game, throwing for 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also boasts a completion percentage of 63% and a passer rating of 97.6. He has been sacked 17 times in those match-ups which begs the question if getting to Roethlisberger will be enough anyways.

The Ravens would be best served to hound Big Ben all game, even if it has proven to have varying success rates in the past few meetings.

This match-up may decide the outcome of Sunday night’s game.

Prediction: Steelers 33 Ravens 27

These two teams rarely play in a blowout game and I think that trend continues on Sunday night. The Ravens defense hasn’t proven to be able to stop elite level quarterbacks the past few years and until they do, it is hard for me to pick the Ravens when they are going up against one. Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense will be too much for the Ravens in this one.

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Image Credit: USA Today

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Three things to watch for as the Ravens host the Broncos in Week 3

BALTIMORE — The 1-1 Baltimore Ravens will welcome the 2-0 Denver Broncos to M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday looking to bounce back from a disappointing 34-23 setback last Thursday night in Cincinnati.

Some of the same problems we’ve seen from the Ravens in recent seasons plagued the team again on Thursday. An offense sputtering out of the gate coupled with a C.J. Mosley-less defense found the Ravens behind the eight ball faced with a 21-0 deficit less than two minutes into the second quarter.

The defense and offense both woke up to some extent to lead a furious charge back into the contest. The Ravens sliced the Bengals’ lead to five with roughly nine and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. After a Tavon Young holding penalty extended the Bengals next drive which led to a field goal, quarterback Joe Flacco fell victim to a sack fumble on the next possession which ultimately put the game away.

A road loss on Thursday night football isn’t the end of the world, but it was still against a division opponent who’s had the Ravens’ number in recent seasons. Now, the Ravens find themselves in a must-win situation at home against the Broncos before facing the Steelers, Browns, and Titans all on the road. As for Denver, the Broncos share the lead in the AFC West with the also undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos began the season with two impressive victories at home over the Seahawks and Raiders. Here’s what to watch for during Sunday’s contest.

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Alex Collins is praying for more carries this week against the Broncos. Image Credit: ESPN

1) Can the Ravens commit to the running game?

Much of the story for the past few seasons surrounding the Ravens offense has been the team’s inability/unwillingness to commit to the running game. Starting tailback Alex Collins has just 16 carries through two weeks which is a number that Ravens fans want to see go up significantly.

Flacco provides the greatest value when he is able to run play action effectively and hit deep passes to his new look receiver corps. It is impossible to establish the play action passing game when you prove to offer no threat of running the football. 10 out of 13 Ravens drives last week featured first down passes. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg needs to change that this week.

Given the Ravens’ offensive line struggles, one of the best ways to get an offensive line feeling confident about themselves is to allow them to run block. The Broncos are sixth against the run through two weeks this season but have faced Seattle and Oakland to this point; neither team offers the run threat that the Ravens can present in Collins.

If the Ravens don’t commit to the running game this week against the Broncos, it could be a long day for the offense.

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Ronnie Stanley will need to come up with a gutsy performance this Sunday. Image Credit: Getty Images

2) How in the world do the Ravens block Von Miller and Bradley Chubb?

The Ravens’ offensive line are coming off of a night in which they allowed four sacks and several additional hurries against the Bengals. The Bengals’ pass rush disrupted Flacco and the offense all night making it difficult for them to find consistent rhythmn. Flacco moved well in the pocket to make the most of a rough night from his guys up front, but if the line struggles Sunday, the problem may be too great to overcome once again.

Von Miller is one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL. He consistently presents the ability to absolutely wreck your offensive game plan. He is nearly impossible to single team and that challenge gets even greater when you consider that Ravens starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley was limited in practice yesterday with an arm injury.

A one-arm Stanley figures to present a greater challenge for Miller than a two armed James Hurst, who could arguably be the worst left tackle on the planet. Miller has four sacks on the season and is looking to put together his fifth straight 10+ sack season.

Another issue for the Ravens is that Miller now has a formidable pass-rushing sidekick in 2018 fifth overall pick Bradley Chubb. While the North Carolina State product doesn’t boast the experience or consistency of Miller, he did record 10 sacks in each of his last two seasons in Raleigh. Chubb has a half-sack on the season and the Ravens will hope his slow start carries over into Sunday.

The Ravens will undoubtedly have to chip with tight ends on Miller and may have to leave extra backs in to help out as well. This is a huge test for the Ravens’ offensive line and we will see if they can answer the call this Sunday.

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Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce need to help shut down the Denver rushing game in the absence of C.J. Mosley. Image Credit: WJLA

3) Can the Ravens defense make the Broncos one-dimensional?

The Ravens gave up over 100 yards on the ground last week to Joe Mixon, Gio Bernard and company. With Mosley out of the game early, the Bengals churned out yardage to the tune of four yards per-carry. Mosley doesn’t project to play this week which will put more pressure on Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce.

Enter Phillip Lindsay and the Broncos second ranked rushing offense. Lindsay, a rookie out of the University of Colorado, is currently third in the NFL with 178 rushing yards to-date. The Broncos also have 2018 third-round pick and projected starter Royce Freeman who put up 99 yards and a touchdown in two games despite Lindsay taking a majority of the snaps.

It is imperative for the Ravens’ defense to shut down the Broncos running game and make Case Keenum and the Denver offense one-dimensional. Keenum has three touchdowns and four interceptions to-date on the season and although he boasts a 2-1 record against the Ravens lifetime, his numbers are poor.

Prior to last season’s breakout year and subsequent free agency score, Keenum had just 27 passing touchdowns and 24 interceptions in 28 career appearances. He is a gunslinger who is prone to turning the ball over and the if the Ravens make him beat them, it bodes well for a Baltimore victory this Sunday.

Prediction: Ravens 23 Broncos 17

I think the Ravens look more like the team that dismantled the Bills than the one that struggled against the Bengals. This is a bigger game for the Ravens than it is for the Broncos with the Ravens heading to Pittsburgh next week. They don’t want to be staring a 1-3 first quarter of the year in the face. They won’t be.

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Image Credit: The Sports Daily

Five thoughts following the Ravens 34-23 loss in Cincinnati

The Ravens entered Cincinnati on Thursday night trying to keep their success rolling after a blowout win over Buffalo just four days prior. As expected, the Bengals proved to be a much tougher opponent and the Ravens looked unprepared early on.

Baltimore managed to erase most of the Bengals early 21-0 lead and make it a one possession game in the second half. However, in the end the Bengals would come out with a 34-23 win thanks to a pair of Ravens turnovers late in the game.

1. A tale of two halves

The Cincinnati Bengals came out strong in Thursday night’s game and took an early 21-0 lead thanks to a strong offensive attack and some Ravens struggles. A.J. Green presented a huge challenge for the Ravens secondary and they failed to answer the call as the Bengals No. 1 receiver hauled in the teams first three touchdowns and finished the night with five receptions for 69 yards.

To make things worse, the Ravens offense was sleep walking in the early goings and could not match Cincinnati’s start. Joe Flacco and company managed to get some momentum going before the half and cut the Bengals lead to 14 but the first half was certainly controlled by the home team.

The second half was a different story. The Bengals opened up with the ball but this time the Ravens defense had an answer. The Baltimore defense forced the Bengals to punt on their first four possessions of the second half. This gave the offense a chance to slowly crawl back into the game with a 55-yard field goal by Justin Tucker and an 87-yard drive, capped off by a beautiful 21-yard touchdown pass to John Brown.

The Ravens defense would end up surrendering just two field goals in the second half, giving Flacco and the offense a legitimate chance to come back. However, some costly turnovers would end up being to difference maker as Flacco threw a second interception and later fumbled with under three minutes to play in the game.

2. C.J Mosley injury

The Ravens defense took a huge hit in the first quarter when C.J. Mosley went down with a knee injury. The middle linebacker had to be carted off after tweaking his knee and everyone in the Ravens fan base collectively held their breath. The injury is currently being reported as a bone bruise which is significantly less detrimental than what many feared when they saw Mosley being carted into the locker room.

The injury did leave the Ravens shorthanded on defense for the majority of Thursdays game. Rookie Kenny Young had to step into a starting role alongside Patrick Onwuasor and performed pretty well after being forced into the spotlight. His presence was best felt while stopping the run but he did have issues cover some of the Bengals tight ends.

The timetable for Mosley is unknown right now but it might be safe to say that Young is going to be called upon to start in the coming weeks. The Ravens were shorthanded at the middle linebacker position coming into the season and losing Mosley is a worst case scenario.

3. Life without Jimmy Smith

Losing Mosley is rough on its own, but it makes things even worse for the next two weeks as the Ravens continue to wait for Jimmy Smith’s suspension to end. Smith’s presence could have certainly been used on Thursday as A.J. Green dominated the first half and helped put the Bengals up 21-0.

Green has given the Ravens plenty of trouble in the past, even with Smith on the field, but everyone knows that the defense fares much better when Smith is able to cover the opponents No. 1 receiver.

Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr and Tavon Young all struggled to stop Green. They will have no time to rest though with the Broncos and Steelers on the horizon. Both Denver’s Demaryius Thomas and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown will pose a similar threat to the Ravens as Green. Don Martindale hasn’t been dealt the best hand with this Smith suspension and now the Mosley injury, but he will have to figure something out quickly if the Ravens want to avoid another outing like this one.

4. Offensive play calling

The Ravens had to dig themselves out of a hole after the Bengals hot start but after they made it a close game in the second half, the offensive play calling was still unbalanced. Marty Mornhinweg continued to call passing plays and ignore the run game despite both Alex Collins finding some success on the ground. Collins was only given nine carries but dazzled in a handful of them by breaking tackles and fighting for extra yards. I know the Ravens want to mix things up with Collins and Buck Allen but your starting running back needs to carry the ball more than nine times, even if he is involved with the pass game.

My main gripe is with the momentum though. In the second half the Ravens were putting together good drives with short, quick passes and some well designed runs. However, just when things started to get going, the momentum was halted by either bringing Lamar Jackson in or calling on Flacco to air it out.

I saw the team find a good amount of success by being patient and slowly chipping away at the Bengals defense. I just don’t understand why the coaching staff would call these plays in such a pivotal point in the game. It led to at least one of the second half  turnovers as Flacco got picked off while trying to go deep late in the third quarter.

5. Early standings implications

After Thursday the Bengals are the current leaders in the AFC north with a 2-0 record. With the Steelers and Browns tying in week one, the Bengals should be happy with their status this early in the year. They were pushed to the side all offseason as pundits focused on the Ravens and Steelers, but Cincinnati has the upper hand after a pair of nice wins to start their season.

The Ravens will have plenty of chances to make waves in the division standings early this season as they prepare to play road games against both Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the next three weeks.

Image credit: Sam Greene