Maintaining firm control a must for Steelers in Week 9

The first time the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens met during the 2018 regular season was in Week Four in front of a national prime-time television crowd on Sunday Night Football. The Steelers, unable to get the run game going, found themselves forcing the pass offensively; their defense was outmatched due to a myriad of communication issues and was unable to turn the field over. Both of these teams look different heading into Week 9 than that weekend in September. While the Steelers have responded to early issues in their game, the Ravens have watched things fall apart the past couple of weeks. This rivalry is always fun to watch, but in order to come away as victors in their second face-off with Baltimore this season, Pittsburgh will need to maintain firm control of the game both offensively and defensively.

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The Steelers allowed the Ravens to utilize Alex Collins and Javorius “Buck” Allen as a two-headed rushing attack with little response in their first meeting until the second half of the game. The duo combined for 72 yards on 21 attempts. That isn’t a huge yardage total, but it set up several big passing plays between Joe Flacco and his big tight ends and receivers. Flacco finished the game having completed 28-of-42 passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns while finding 11 different targets. John Brown had 116 receiving yards and a touchdown on just three catches. What hurt them, however, was allowing the Ravens to convert critical downs to not only keep possession of the ball, but to control the game clock.

In his Tuesday press conference, head coach Mike Tomlin was addressed in regard to whether he felt Baltimore did more to control the line of scrimmage in their first meeting, to which he responded:

“I don’t know if they controlled the line of scrimmage as much as they controlled possession downs… we didn’t do enough on possession downs. We didn’t get off the field on defense and we didn’t sustain drives on offense. I thought that was probably the singularly most deciding factor in terms of how the game unfolded.”

Arguably the best defensive play the Steelers put together in Week 4 was a goal-line stand with their backs in their own end zone in the second quarter. Flacco had hit Brown on a 71-yard catch-and-run that led to a first-and-goal situation. If Baltimore could punch it in, they’d extend their lead to 21-3 over Pittsburgh. As Collins took the handoff, Sean Davis and Coty Sensabaugh were able to get off the snap early and strip the ball as they hit the ball-carrier, giving rookie Terrell Edmunds the opportunity to grab the fumble at the one-yard line, negate a potential score and get the Steelers offense back on the field.

With the Ravens utilizing several tight end sets, it will be critical on Sunday for the defense to play efficiently, especially in gap-coverage and while dropping linebackers and defensive backs into coverage for those personnel groupings. “The athleticism of those tight ends allows them to not only play traditional multiple tight end ball,” Tomlin said on Tuesday, “but also spread you out and challenge you in ways that Joe [Flacco] is comfortable doing from a spread standpoint.”

The Steelers have also seen improvement from their sub-package defenders – guys that may not be seen as “starters” but who have been critical to success. Guys like Mike Hilton, L.J. Fort, Morgan Burnett. In fact, Tomlin credited those players as being “significant”. “We had all three of those sub-package defenders available to us last week and that’s probably why our third down performance in particular probably looked the way it looked,” Tomlin said. “We haven’t had a lot of games this year where all three of those guys were available to us.” Those improvements should prove vital to maintaining control of the game this Sunday.

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Offensively, the Steelers were unable to develop the ground game in Week 4. James Conner had just nine carries for 19 yards before the Ravens defense effectively forced the game into a shoot-out. “Oftentimes the running game or opportunities in the running game are controlled by game circumstance,” Tomlin explained. “We got down by 14 [against the Ravens previously] and then we didn’t convert third downs… so we didn’t have enough snaps.”

Pittsburgh has shown drastic improvement in their rushing offense as of late and can grab control of possession downs, extending their own drives, if they establish the run early in the game this weekend and set the tempo instead of allowing Baltimore to dictate it.

Conner has been increasingly more impressive week-to-week as he has found a level of comfort behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, even when guys like Ramon Foster or Marcus Gilbert have been replaced by another member of the roster. Conner has 599 rushing yards on 127 carries entering Week 9 with nine touchdowns and 30 first downs. That first down number is critical.

Ben Roethlisberger has played the Ravens enough to understand what their defense presents and if the run game gets established, it will open up opportunities for the wily veteran to find Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and his own list of viable targets to create long drives and chew up game clock.

If Big Ben finds himself in a situation where the offensive line is really clicking, giving him comfort and room to work, don’t be surprised if he orchestrates plays this weekend like this one to Brown (over Marlon Humphrey) in Week 4:

Pittsburgh has an opportunity to make a strong move in the AFC North with a win over Baltimore this week. The game has playoff implications whether anyone wants to think about that in the middle of a season or not. To win, the Steelers need to grab control of the game and keep it for 60 full minutes.

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