The Pittsburgh Steelers had a hard-fought AFC North win in Cincinnati last week and ended sweeping last year’s division champion. The defense managed a 2nd half shut out and set up a Christmas Day game with major ramifications against the Baltimore Ravens.
If the Steelers win, Santa will leave an AFC North division championship under Steelers Nations’ proverbial football tree. Let’s see how the offensive line and Le’Veon Bell match up against the Ravens’ the number two ranked rush defense.
When analyzing the Ravens’ defense, it’s easy to see why the only surrender 82 rushing yards per game; they are deep and well rounded. They have four interior linemen Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams, Lawrence Guy and Michael Pierce that rotate and play the run well.
Per Pro Football Focus (PFF) their run stopping metrics (in the order listed above) are 79, 77, 79.1, and 78.7. As far as run defense, there’s hardly a drop off between the back-ups and the starters. On the outside, Terrell Suggs and Albert McClellan have taken most the snaps due to an Elvis Dumervil injury. While the Ravens’ defense doesn’t possess the run stopping depth on the edges that they do up the middle, Suggs and McClellan have run defense metrics of 81.9 and 71.0 respectively.
If the Steelers decide to run the ball out of their 11 personnel Marcus Gilbert will be matched up against Dumervil, a pass rushing specialist that injured his foot in week 6 and has had limited playing time. His run defense metric is 66.4 while Gilbert’s run blocking metric is 78.2. This may be a matchup the Steelers try to exploit in the run game, but a healthy Dumervil is much better on film than his PFF grade reflects.
David DeCastro has a run blocking metric of 84.9 and will deal with Jernigan for most the game. If DeCastro can execute without committing penalties his contribution to the running game is hard to quantify as a number. He is a great pulling guard that finishes blocks with authority (see his block on Vontaze Burfict while pulling last week).
Maurkice Pouncey will have major say on the success of the Steelers running game. His ability to work to the second level can turn three yards runs into five yard runs and five yard runs into big gains. His run blocking metric is 74.9 (surprisingly low) but his leadership keeps the line on the same page and his athleticism allows him to handle giant nose tackles when they line up right over him.
On the left side, Ramon Foster will be tasked with blocking 340 pound run stuffing specialist Brandon Williams. Per PFF Williams’ run stopping metric is a 77 and Foster’s run blocking metric is 81.1, all-in-all on paper it seems like an even matchup.
Then there’s the matchup on Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side: Alejandro Villanueva vs. Terrell Suggs. While Suggs is in the twilight of his career, he’s still an impact player from his edge position. Essentially Suggs is the Ravens’ version of James Harrison: Older than most but playing at a higher level than most.
Suggs has been an elite player for his whole NFL career and on paper should have an advantage against Villanueva. As mentioned, Suggs’ run-stopping metric is 81.9 while Villanueva’s run blocking is graded at 75.3. In the past, Villanueva has needed assistance from a tight end or a back at times to block Suggs successfully. If he’s able to block Suggs man to man in the running game it’ll be a big win for the Steelers line.
When looking at the bigger picture Foster’s performance against Williams sticks out as an important one. If he needs assistance from Villanueva to keep Williams from penetrating on plays where DeCastro is pulling then that leaves a tight end or back one on one with Suggs, an obvious advantage for the Ravens’ run defense.
At the second level, the Ravens have C.J. Mosley (who the Steelers passed on in the 2014 draft in favor of Ryan Shazier) and Zachary Orr who are both benefiting from the dominant play of the Ravens’ defensive line. Mosley has a run stopping metric of 88.4, the second highest grade in the NFL, and Orr who’s PFF run stopping metric is a below average 43.3.
Orr much better in coverage and benefits from playing next to Mosley and in front of Ravens’ safety Eric Weddle when it comes to stopping the run. Weddle, a free-agent last off-season that both the Steelers and Ravens pursued, is having a great season in Baltimore. He’s managed to produce a 90.6 run defense metric from the strong safety position. He’s become one of the main reasons this defense is so hard to run against, when he’s in the box, he’s hard to block and a steady open field tackler.
Complicating matters is the fact that Weddle is equally as good when in the secondary, posting a 89.6 pass coverage metric which is better than most corners in the NFL. Todd Haley and the Steelers offense are going to have to find an answer for Weddle if they are going to move the ball against the Ravens.
The other blockers (accompanied by their blocking rating) such as Roosevelt Nix (82.1), Chris Hubbard (53.1), Jesse James (49.6), Xavier Grimble (56.8) and David Johnson (51.5) are all going to have to contribute as blockers when called upon. Whether it’s sealing the edge or leading Le’Veon Bell as a blocker, the margin of error against the Ravens’ run defense is very, very small. The offense must be patient, take what they can get, and protect the football.
There are some things Haley can do to help the run game be effective. First, if he lets Ben run the no huddle for extended periods of time it will limit Baltimore’s ability to rotate defensive linemen and bring in specialized blitz packages throughout the game.
Not to mention test the stamina level of the Ravens’ big defensive linemen. If the Steelers get a numbers advantage in the box, or in the passing game, they need to switch to the no huddle offense to exploit the mismatch if possible (it won’t happen often against a good coach like John Harbaugh).
They also need to stick with the power running game, it’s not always going to be effective against a talented defense like Baltimore’s that has a good feel for what the Steelers are trying to do. But the Steelers need to win the time of possession battle to win this game, especially considering the injuries along the Steelers’ defensive line. The less time a shorthanded defensive front is out on the field, the better chances of winning become.
The best way to execute a game plan like this is to make sure Bell gets at least 25 touches and take advantage of short field’s when they present themselves.
Hopefully the defense, special teams and passing game all have good days and help take some pressure off the running game. Beating this Ravens defense with a run dominant offense isn’t impossible, but will be a tall task unless the Steelers get contributions from the rest of the team as well.
This week is the anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. The perfect reminder that anything can happen when it comes to football. Hopefully something as amazing happens on Sunday.
Classic Rock song sums up this article: Led Zeppelin “When the Levee Breaks” – let’s break the levee and bring everything down on the Ravens. All I want on Christmas is for the Steelers to play four quarters of well-rounded football, and win, of course.