As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, our first preview of the Baltimore Ravens’ offense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
RAVENS’ RUN GAME
The bread and butter of this team. A group that looks different from a personnel standpoint given the losses of J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill. But the numbers still look about the same. They rank second in the league averaging 150.7 yards per game while their 4.6 YPC is one of the league’s better numbers. Their 12 rushing touchdowns are tied for tenth most in the league as well while their 359 rushing attempts are third most in football, illustrating that run-heavy commitment.
Lamar Jackson is this team’s leading rusher with 123 attempts at 5.7 yards per carry, slightly down from 2020’s number of 5.7. Latavius Murray are Devonta Freeman are the top two true running backs. Murray has 77 carries, Freeman 75, with Murray being more of the hammer and short-yardage type of runner. That’s reflected in their YPC, Murray just 3.4 while Freeman is at 4.3.
Overall, this run game has 42 gains of 10+ yards, tied fifth most in football. Their eight runs of 20+ are also tied for fifth most.
From a run-game schematic standpoint, they brought back their pistol formation in recent weeks. I’d expect to see a lot of that in this game from there. That does limit some of their read/option offense but it does make the direction the run will go harder to predict.
They’re a heavy personnel team with multiple tight ends and fullbacks. All of whom can block. Even lesser known guys like Nick Boyle, Eric Tomlinson, and Patrick Ricard, the FB who is playing more than anyone else, 429 offensive snaps on the season. But he can and will line up all over. He serves as a tight end/H-back as much as he is an actual fullback, and they’ll occasionally throw to him in the flats. He has seven catches on the year.
Plenty of power and gap scheme from these guys. Baltimore makes life tough because of all the extra gaps they create pre and post-snap. And that’s been an issue for the Steelers to try to defend. Watch out for their power option with Jackson on the keep.
They also use a “bash” concept (back away) with the back running opposite of the pullers. With Jackson a threat to run the ball and follow the pullers, this is a good concept. The Bears hit Pittsburgh with a TD on it earlier this year so watch out for this look Sunday.
Given the threat Jackson is and the lack of great talent at running back, I’d expect Pittsburgh to use their “mesh charge” that attacks the QB at every mesh point to force the give to the back and get a free hit on the QB. The Ravens won’t appreciate it but should be expecting it.
Film Room: The Steelers used "mesh charge" to repeatedly attack the QB Sunday when Baltimore was in pistol. Though I like the idea in theory, especially against Lamar next year, they didn't get the results they wanted. https://t.co/CetaCcFFgR pic.twitter.com/mJZxnkILKo
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) January 1, 2020
Some other offensive stats. They’re averaging 23.9 points per game, 15th in football, but have scored at or under 16 points in their last three games. Their offense is very hot and cold. Baltimore has four outings of 30+ points but have been held under 18 points in four of their last five contests.
Their third down offense is poor at just 36.6% while their red zone offense has been strong, 9th-best at a little over 65%.
RAVENS’ PASS GAME
With Jackson still at QB, of course. His numbers aren’t too dissimilar from a year ago, though his 12 INTs are already three more than he tossed all of 2020. His completion percentage and YPA are very similar to last season. He has been sacked much more often, 30 times this year compared to 29 in 2020. Losing Ronnie Stanley and trading Orlando Brown Jr. didn’t help.
HIs top two weapons are WR Hollywood Brown and TE Mark Andrews. Each guy has 60 receptions. Brown is their big-play vertical threat but Andrews is a threat down the seam. In fact, their yards per catch are almost identical. Brown at 12.8, Andrews at 12.7. Andrews is just one of three tight ends, joining Travis Kelce and Darren Waller, to have 50+ receptions and averaging 12+ YPC.
Rookie Rashod Bateman is third on the team with 25 receptions but has only played in six games after getting hurt at the start of the year. Sammy Watkins has struggled with health but remains a bonafide deep threat, averaging 15.3 yards per catch. Their 41 plays of 20+ yards are ninth most. Only five of those have gone 40+, one of the lowest numbers in the league.
Conceptually, the Ravens like using smash concepts. They ran them a lot in Week 11 against Chicago when Tyler Huntley was making his first start. Simple, often mirrored high-low reads for the QB. Couple examples.
And if they get Brown iso’d up on the backside, they’ll take vertical shots with him. Check him out at the top with the double-move.
Watch out for slant and rub routes too to get Brown or Andrews open underneath.
JOSH’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT
It’s Ravens week, Steelers fans!
After a really tough showing in AFC North football in Week 12 against the Cincinnati Bengals, things don’t get any easier for the Steelers against the physical Baltimore Ravens, who sit at 8-3 on the season.
Though Baltimore has been decimated by injuries this season, the Ravens are still finding a way to win football games. Call it luck, call it whatever you want: they keep on stacking Ws in the win column. That’s all that matters.
Lamar Jackson remains the driving force on this Ravens offense. He’s taken a significant leap forward this season as a passer, giving the Ravens a bit more balance offensively. It helps that the Ravens finally invested in getting him some real weapons in the passing game along with wide receiver Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, adding free agent wide receiver Sammy Watkins and drafting wide receiver Rashod Bateman in the first round.
Jackson has always been able to sling it, but it feels like his arm talent is standing out much more prominently this season. He’s able to change arm angles, throws a terrific deep ball and just has the football explode out of his hand.
It helps having a deep threat like Brown to run underneath the bombs downfield.
Brown has certainly emerged in 2021 with Jackson, but the passing game still revolves around all-world tight end Mark Andrews, who certainly has an argument for the top tight end in football. He is a security blanket for Jackson, can stretch the seam, and makes some phenomenal catches.
Plus, he’s a terrific redzone weapon for the Ravens, consistently coming up with a play for the Ravens.
Though he has taken a step forward as a passer with much of the attention on him in that aspect, Jackson is a still a dynamic runner of the football. The Ravens aren’t calling as many designed runs for him as they have in the past, but he can still take the football and make something out of nothing in the blink of an eye.
I think what makes him so dangerous is he never panics. Here against the Browns in Week 12, the RPO does not give Jackson the look he was anticipating post-snap as his receiving options aren’t covered.
He is under control enough to realize he has defenders turning their backs to him and he casually picks up a gain of 13 yards to move the chains. That’s what makes him so dangerous. You could play it nearly perfectly as a defense, but he’ll still kill you.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Ravens’ offense remains one of the best rushing attacks in football, even without standout running back JK Dobbins, who tore his ACL in the preseason, as well as talented No. 2 running back Gus Edwards, who tore his ACL in practice days before the start of the season.
It helps that Greg Roman remains a terrific offensive coordinator with great design, especially in the ground game.
End arounds and jet sweeps are becoming staples in the NFL, but Roman continues to add little wrinkles just to keep defenses off balance.
I loved this call on the second play of the game in a Thursday Night loss to the Miami Dolphins to get Devin Duvernay involved right away.
The Ravens block their butts off on the boundary and Duvernay has the speed to turn the corner. It’s nothing transcendent, but it works so well.
In the backfield, without Edwards and Dobbins, the Ravens really haven’t missed a beat with guys like Latavius Murray, Ty’Son Williams, Devonta Freeman, and even Le’Veon Bell, who is no longer on the team.
Freeman has turned back the clock and has looked terrific now that he’s fully healthy. He has his burst back and has really given the Ravens a real rushing attack once again.
I just love the way the Ravens execute in the ground game. You get both the guard and tackle to land their reach blocks and Freeman has the speed to turn the corner and pick up 13. It’s fun to watch.
Speaking of that offensive line, here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Sunday:
LT — Alejandro Villanueva
LG — Ben Powers
C — Bradley Bozeman
RG — Kevin Zeitler
RT — Patrick Mekari
Mekari has been the surprise of the season for the Ravens up front. He’s turned into a high-level run blocker and has held his own in pass protection, far exceeding expectations. Inside, Zeitler and Powers are terrific in the run game, which fits the Ravens’ identity, while Bozeman has thrived in his shift to center.
Villanueva is still Villanueva, regardless of if Steelers fans still remain down on him. He is playing solid football, which is what he’s done his entire career. It will be interesting to see him against Alex Highsmith.
There’s simply not much to say about the Ravens on special teams. Justin Tucker and Sam Koch remain the best specialist tandem in the NFL, while Duvernay is terrific in the return game. Though he doesn’t have a return touchdown to date, he leads the NFL in average return yardage and is a real threat for the Ravens.