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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday night

Posted on 09 December 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t really need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

A one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, a strong tiebreaker profile, and three remaining games — two at home — against teams that are a combined 20 games below .500 make Baltimore’s chances to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 very strong already. But a victory would bring the elusive signature win that would make the doubters — and perhaps John Harbaugh’s team itself — start to believe the Ravens are capable of being a legitimate threat in January.

Meanwhile, the Steelers hope to extend their seven-game winning streak, but a defeat would still leave them within striking distance of New England, who will visit Heinz Field next week with the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. The immediate incentive for Pittsburgh to win Sunday would be to clinch the AFC North title, but its three-game advantage with four weeks to go leaves quite a margin for error in the division race.

In other words, the renewal of this intense rivalry lacks the same stakes as last year’s Christmas Day affair that essentially served as a division championship game.

Last week’s serious back injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on the minds of both teams as the former Pro Bowl selection’s future on and off the field remains unclear. With many Pittsburgh players planning to wear cleats paying tribute to their injured teammate, how the Steelers respond emotionally playing at home could certainly be a factor for at least the beginning of Sunday night’s game.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 44th time in the regular-season series with the Steelers holding a slight 23-20 advantage to go with a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh has won the last two meetings and is in search of its first regular-season sweep of the Ravens since 2008. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 22 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.

Below are five predictions for Sunday night:

1. Danny Woodhead will have his best game as a Raven with 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. The focus on Shazier’s injury has rightly been on his health and not on football, but the Steelers will miss his presence in pass coverage as he recorded an interception and four breakups against Baltimore’s underneath passing game in Week 4. With Cam Heyward and a strong Pittsburgh front dominating the line of scrimmage in that first meeting, Joe Flacco may have to rely on more short passing and less of Alex Collins and the running game. With outside linebacker Arthur Moats filling in on the inside, this is the game Woodhead and the Ravens need to exploit an advantageous matchup.

2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will finish with 115 total yards of offense. It’s no secret the run defense has been superb since Brandon Williams’ return in late October, but Bell’s huge game in Week 4 was more about the inability to set the edge on outside runs and to handle the Steelers’ pulling interior linemen on counters than struggles inside as he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will be hellbent to slow Bell as a runner, but linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor have been vulnerable in pass coverage and this is where Bell will find more of his success. He’ll extend a streak of 57 or more receiving yards to four straight games.

3. Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant will catch long touchdowns for their respective teams. With Steelers cornerback Joe Haden still out and their safeties inclined to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage to help the inside linebackers in coverage, there should be some opportunities for the Ravens to take deep shots and Wallace has been playing his best football of the year since the bye. On the flip side, Baltimore will do whatever it can schematically to prevent Antonio Brown from killing a secondary without Jimmy Smith, but that will leave Marlon Humphrey or Brandon Carr occasionally on an island matched up with Bryant, who is still dangerous despite a disappointing season.

4. Joe Flacco will be efficient and play turnover-free football for the third straight week. The 10th-year quarterback is coming off his best game of the year and needs to play more like that down the stretch if the Ravens are to become a realistic threat in the AFC. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will do more to try to confuse Flacco and mix up coverages than Detroit did a week ago, but his fourth-ranked defense ranks a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Pass protection needs to hold up better than it did in the first meeting between these teams, but Flacco will effectively find Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.

5. The Ravens will pull off the upset for their first signature win of the season in a 23-20 final. Perhaps I’m drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but the Steelers are coming off a short and emotional week following a Monday night road game and have trailed in the second half of four of their last five games, illustrating how vulnerable they’ve looked at times despite a terrific 10-2 record. Baltimore has one last chance to earn a signature win and needs to build on its strong performance from a week ago to build confidence that the offense can be productive enough moving forward to have a real chance in the playoffs. The Steelers are the better team overall, but this week’s circumstances set up favorably for the Ravens to steal a road win in Pittsburgh and further improve their playoff positioning.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-9 loss to Pittsburgh

Posted on 03 October 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens suffering their first home defeat to Pittsburgh since 2012 in a 26-7 loss, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. From being shut out in the first half and Mike Wallace’s drop of a possible touchdown to the poor offensive line play and the all-too-slow tempo of the no-huddle attack in the fourth quarter, this Ravens offense is broken. And it’s tough to trust Marty Mornhinweg to fix it.

2. Even acknowledging the injuries and the poor offense, Dean Pees’ defense ranks 14th in points allowed per game, 21st in total yards per game, 16th in passing yards per game, and 20th in yards per carry allowed. That’s not nearly good enough considering the many resources used on this defense.

3. The running game has been the offense’s only redeeming quality, but 73 of the 82 rushing yards came on two plays while the other 13 carries produced a total of nine yards. It’s difficult staying on schedule without gaining at least a few yards each on those other plays.

4. Those wondering if the Ravens were wise to spend so much to re-sign Brandon Williams have seen a defensive line lacking a consistent push. Even in those short-yardage situations where the Ravens front appeared to make a stop, the Steelers were still able to get enough to move the chains.

5. It’s difficult to recall too many games when Ravens outside linebackers were so abysmal against the run. Pittsburgh gained most of its big yards on outside runs while Baltimore consistently failed to set the edge.

6. Alex Collins has lost two fumbles on just 25 carries, but the Ravens have no choice right now but to give him opportunities when he’s been their best offensive playmaker. He clearly needs to protect the football, but the risk-reward ratio remains in his favor — for now.

7. Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward might as well have changed his address to the Ravens backfield on Sunday. He absolutely dominated an undermanned and inexperienced offensive line.

8. John Harbaugh has received plenty of fair criticism for his use of challenges over the years, but give him credit for being on top of the Eric Weddle interception that followed a non-catch from Antonio Brown. If only the whistle hadn’t blown before an easy return for a touchdown.

9. Marlon Humphrey was immediately challenged upon entering the game and ran right with Brown on a long incompletion in the second quarter. I’m surprised that he’s mostly subbed in for Jimmy Smith, but the rookie continues to make a strong argument for a starting role opposite Smith.

10. He had a rough game against Jacksonville, but I didn’t quite get Tyus Bowser playing only eight defensive snaps against the Steelers. It’s not as though the other young outside linebackers have established themselves as consistent options and he was very good against Cleveland in Week 2.

11. I couldn’t help but think Harbaugh’s expressed frustration over Jaylen Hill’s slow-healing hamstring injury Monday had something to do with the struggles of Lardarius Webb at the nickel spot. There’s certainly a role for Webb in this defense, but he’s being exposed in pass coverage.

12. The poor throw from high-priced quarterback Joe Flacco and the inability of former first-round receiver Breshad Perriman to corral it in the third quarter epitomized how inept this offense has been. Even when the Ravens had a golden opportunity for a touchdown, they wasted it.

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