By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers head to Baltimore to face the Ravens, their fiercest rivals, on Oct. 1.
The Steelers (2-1) and the Ravens (2-1) are entering the Week 4 contest with several things in common. Both teams are coming off awful road losses this past weekend. Pittsburgh suffered a 23-17 loss to then winless Chicago (1-2) and Baltimore got shellacked by Jacksonville (2-1) 44-7 in London. Those two things are not the only similarities, as both teams’ offenses have struggled during the first three weeks of the season. As a result, each team has had to rely on their terrific defenses to maintain order in the division.
The Steelers lead the all-time series 25-21-0, but the Ravens have won six of the last eight meetings.
Baltimore’s offense was a complete dud in London. The Ravens went three and out on five of their first seven offensive possessions. They also turned the ball over three times and did not score until their last offensive possession of the game. The seven points is the team’s fewest since tallying six points in a 35-6 Week 14 loss to Seattle in 2015.The Ravens recorded 12 first downs and had only 186 total offensive yards against Jacksonville.
Quarterback Joe Flacco was painfully dreadful against Jacksonville. He completed 8-of-18 passes for 28 yards along with two interceptions. Flacco, who missed the entire preseason with a sore back, didn’t have to do much in Week 1 and then amped up the offense with a pair of touchdown passes in Week 2. For the season, he has completed 60.9% (42-for-69) of his passes for an average of 122 yards a game to go along with three touchdowns and four interceptions. Flacco has now thrown an interception in nine straight games.
Overall, Baltimore ranks dead last in total offense, producing 267.3 yards a game. On the plus side, the Ravens have the league’s fourth best rushing attack, accumulating 142.3 yards a contest. Buck Allen leads the way with 152 yards on 43 attempts and Terrence West has compiled 128 yards on 33 carries. Third-string back Alex Collins increased his rushing total to 124 yards on the season following his 81-yard, nine carry effort against the Jags.
While the offense was a complete disaster against the Jaguars, the Ravens defense had to be the biggest disappointment. Baltimore allowed the Jags 410 total yards of offense as quarterback Blake Bortles thoroughly picked their defense apart. The Ravens defense posted no sacks or takeaways and registered just three quarterback hits. The 44-points surrendered is the fourth most allowed in franchise history.
Prior to the game, Baltimore ranked first in points against, 10th in total defense, 17th in passing defense, 12th in rushing defense as well as first in takeaways.
The Ravens have recorded eight sacks for the season, tied for the 10th most in the league, and have a league-high eight interceptions. They also are still atop of the NFL with 10 takeaways. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is the Ravens’ top defensive playmaker leading the squad with 26 tackles, 21 of those being of the solo variety. Mosley has led the team in tackles in two of the three games.
Players to watch: Right guard Matt Skura and cornerback Brandon Carr
In reality, the entire Ravens offensive line will be under fire against the Steelers’ explosive pass rush. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is the only remaining starter from last season, with right guard Marshal Yanda out for the remainder of the year.
Skura, 24, made his NFL debut on Sunday after spending the first two weeks on the team’s practice squad like he did all of last year. Jacksonville’s interior defensive lineman tallied six tackles against guards James Hurst and Skura. The Steelers like to put their outside linebackers on the edge, meaning that Hurst and Skura will be responsible for blocking Cam Heyward and Tyson Aluala. Both Heyward and Aluala has been very active getting pressure on the quarterback through the first three games.
With veteran corner Jimmy Smith having the ultimate responsibility of keeping Antonio Brown in check, it will be up to Brandon Carr to shutdown the Steelers’ other receivers—Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Carr will likely mirror Bryant most of the time as he is the Steelers’ most dangerous receiver—other than Brown. Bryant has only seven receptions on 18 targets for 135 yards, though he is capable of coming up with a big play at any time.
Outlook: Steelers 20, Ravens 17
Neither the Steelers nor the Ravens are currently operating at their top level, as both teams have been buoyed by offensive inadequacies and injuries. However, this will be a hard-fought and, more than likely, a tight game. Each of the past four contests has been decided by seven or less points.
The Steelers will look to exorcise their demons in Baltimore, having won just nine of 21 games there. The Steelers, who have won three times in Baltimore since 2008, have lost four straight at M &T Bank Stadium overall. The key may come down to how involved tight end Jesse James is in the Steelers’ passing game and penalties.
James, who has been targeted 17 times, has caught at least two passes in each game thus far. He scored both touchdowns in the season opening win over Cleveland. The Ravens defense has been eaten up by opposing tight ends for 11 catches and four touchdowns. The Jags’ Marcedes Lewis had four catches, three for touchdowns, and 64 yards in London.
Pittsburgh should have the advantage.