Wild Card Preview: Baltimore Ravens

I know I said a lot of disrespectful things about the Cincinnati Bengals last week (because I do not respect them) but no team irritates me more than the Baltimore Ravens.

Okay, I know, I know. Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers’ MVP, is most likely a scratch for Saturday night. That’s a big blow, I get it.

I understand that both teams put up 49 points on each other. I get it.

But to pick the Ravens to go into Heinz Field and win. Sorry, that’s over my head.

Let’s review…

The Steelers played on a short week. The game was scheduled for Thursday night, the 2nd game of the year, where the Steelers had little preparation after playing a division opponent in the Cleveland Browns in week 1. We can clearly see how a team can grow over time, but the Steelers were not only raw at this point, but also under-prepared to travel on a short week, against another division rival. (Don’t forget, the Ravens also played at home in their week 1 game as well, so they had zero travel between their Sunday and Thursday games.)

When the Ravens won the week 2 match up against the Steelers, Pittsburgh was playing without a few components that are now vital to their team. The biggest cog in that machine now is Martavis Bryant, who has 8 touchdowns on the season and did not play against the Ravens in that game. WR Lance Moore didn’t play either, replaced by WR Justin Brown (who admittedly I was high on) was the 3rd receiver, and coughed up a costly fumble. (Brown was cut this week to make room on the roster for signing RB Ben Tate.)

The Steelers turned the ball over 3 times to the Ravens 0 in that game, but Baltimore heavily relied upon K Justin Tucker, who kicked 4 field goals that night.

Fast forward to the Steelers home encounter against the Ravens on November 2nd. QB Ben Roethlisberger (with all of his weapons intact) threw 6 touchdown passes against a poor Ravens secondary.

Fast forward to tomorrow and that Ravens secondary hasn’t gotten any better. Nor has the team for that matter.

The Ravens have struggled mightily since that November 2nd shellacking at Heinz Field. While they have gone 5-3 overall, the Steelers have gone 5-2 (with a bye week.) Where the difference lies, is the quality of the opponents. Baltimore has posted a 2-4 record against playoff teams this season while Pittsburgh is 5-1 against the same (with their only loss being against the Ravens.) Baltimore’s wins have come against Tennessee, Jacksonville and Cleveland. Jacksonville and Cleveland nearly beat the Ravens in their house, while the Houston Texans smacked the Ravens 25-13.

The common thread in all of those games? The quarterback.

The Jaguars have a rookie signal-caller, while the Texans played a street free agent (Case Keenum) and the Browns started a 3rd stringer (Connor Shaw.) If the Ravens couldn’t decisively win against inexperienced QBs, what are they going to do against one who’s having a career season?

Of course, I haven’t forgotten about the Ravens defense, but quite honestly, with or without Haloti Ngata, the Steelers offensive line has been lights-out against the likes of the Chiefs and Bengals (twice) in previous weeks. They can cause problems, but with their subpar secondary, or without Le’Veon Bell, I don’t see them causing too many issues.

Speaking of Bell, the only concern may be the versatility of his backups, if #26 can’t make a go of it. Ben Tate is strictly an insurance policy, and doesn’t have a large YPC average this season, though that could change behind the Steelers offensive line. The other options are both rookies: Dri Archer is a lightning rod, but a small body to block big defensive linemen and linebackers. Josh Harris is more of a bruising back, capable of tough yards and blocking defenders, but his role in the passing game is unknown.

The good news is, the Steelers only had 55 yards of rushing in the big win in November. My estimation is, the combination of Archer, Harris and Tate only need to combine for 60 yards on the ground. I believe Harris is more than capable of doing so, while Archer could add a few catches… plus, how does one plan for players they have no film on? Archer and/or Harris could be a pleasant surprise.

As for the Steelers defense, everyone is coming on strong. The secondary is playing excellent. They’ll have to continue, as Ravens WR Torrey Smith has come on strong as well at the end of the year, previously being a non-factor. Pittsburgh has also put on the pressure, with 9 sacks in their last 2 games.

Hopefully, the Steelers have gotten the bugs out of their system, with 3 turnovers in the Cincinnati game. If they can contain Baltimore’s one true x-factor, return man Jacoby Jones, I don’t see this game being remotely close. I’m not sure the Steelers will put up 40 points, but I know they can outscore the Ravens offense.

The suspense builds… here… we… go!

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