As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Our X Factor for the Turkey Day showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
X Factor: Vince Williams And Robert Spillane
In the first Steelers/Ravens matchup, our X Factor went to Keith Butler. But in a sense, coaching matters less this week. It’s a short-week and as Butler admitted when speaking to reporters, it’s hard to do much “new” as a defense. The condensed week doesn’t allow you to install new concepts and have enough practice reps to feel confident in them heading into a game.
“You can’t like put something new in and hope you do well in it,” Butler said via a team transcript. “There’s stuff that we are going to do that we’ve used in the past just like they have, just like they’re going to do…we’re not going to try to invent the game either. We’re going to do the things that we’ve done well and that’s worked for us. We have to play better than we did last time obviously.”
Translation. This week is all about execution.
And it’s reasonable to believe the Steelers will employ a similar gameplan as before given the difficulty of short-week wrinkles and wholesale changes. In the past two meetings against the Ravens, Butler has leaned on his “mesh charge” of attacking the QB at the mesh point, even if he hands the ball off. That way, the defender can’t be read. He’s forcing the give to the back.
The upside? It limits Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability. He has to hand the ball off. And the Steelers’ calculation is the running back is less of a threat (they’re right) especially now that the Ravens will be without Mark Ingram and JK Dobbins due to COVID.
But there is a downside. And it was clear in the first matchup. Jackson didn’t do much damage on the ground, he rushed for just 65 yards on four yards a carry and much of that came on scrambles, not designed runs. Yet the Ravens gouged Pittsburgh for 265 yards on the ground. The fact the Steelers executed their mesh charge meant they had one less defender in the box. If Pittsburgh had seven in the box with the mesh charge, they now only had six to defend the ball.
And in that game, players struggled to win 1v1 matchups they had to dominate in order to compensate to being even (or occasionally outnumbered) in the run game. Some of that had to do with the loss of Tyson Alualu, his return will be massive, but I’m looking at Williams and Spillane too. They have to be able to flow sideline to sideline, even if Dobbins is out (RB Justice Hill can fly) and more importantly, get off blocks. Despite his physicality and hit power, that’s an area where Spillane has struggled. Have to stay clean, not get caught up in the trash, find the runner, and make the tackle.
These guys are capable of it. And the Ravens are hurting. But Gus Edwards is a powerful back who ran for 130 against this defense last year. So even if Jackson is removed from the run game, the Steelers’ job is far from over.