For the first time in three years, the Pittsburgh Steelers get to play a game after the regular season finale. They closed on the month of December with four straight wins, emerging victorious in eight of their last 10 games to finish as the third seed in the AFC, winning the AFC North for the first time since 2010.
The Steelers clinched a playoff berth with their 20-12 victory over the Chiefs in week 16 at Heinz Field, and then capped off the regular season by completing a sweep over the Bengals with a 27-17 win. They held their last four opponents to under 22 points for the first time all year, and in many ways may be playing their best ball.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll have an easy time combating the division-rival Baltimore Ravens, one of three AFC North teams in the postseason this year. In fact, the offense has not been quite as potent as it had been, even at home, and the offense will be without Le’Veon Bell, complicating matters.
The absence of Bell, of course, is the big storyline in this game, as the second-year back earned All-Pro status as the most complete player at the position as a runner, blocker, and receiver. The Steelers don’t even have much behind him, so it will be an ad hoc process cobbling together a running game against one of the better run defenses in the league.
Speaking of whom, the Ravens will be getting back Haloti Ngata to pair with Brandon Williams along that stout defensive line, against which the Steelers’ line struggled in the running game even during their mid-season blowout victory.
Bell only rushed for 20 yards on 10 carries in that game, adding five receptions for 38 yards, including a receiving touchdown, but it was the threat of the running game that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to prosper, throwing six touchdown passes.
Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, of course, will be tasked with carrying this offense against a beaten Ravens secondary. Brown, obviously will be primarily facing Lardarius Webb, so other receivers, such as Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant, could find some favorable matchups that the offense can take advantage of.
One of the major challenges the offense will face in this game will be to thwart the Ravens’ pass rush, which has been among the best in the league this year. They have found success in both previous games against the Steelers, but, at the same time, the line seems to have found its stride in pass protection lately, and Marcus Gilbert has settled back in.
Finding a way to orchestrate a running game and make the play action believable will be key, which means that Josh Harris needs to be able to find some success in this game. Ben Tate likely won’t see much action, but with Bell not taking every snap, we could probably expect to see Dri Archer used in a variety of ways against the Ravens.