OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The biggest difference between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers comes down to two players.
Baltimore has the better defense while the Steelers possess a more stable offensive line. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is better than Joe Flacco, but we know the latter is capable of playing at a high level with enough good pieces around him.
Pieces more like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who are the biggest obstacles in Baltimore’s attempt to snap a four-game losing streak and pull even with the Steelers in the AFC North. Counting the 2014 postseason, the Ravens have won their last three games against Pittsburgh, but one of Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell missed each one of those games.
The last time the dynamic trio played against the Ravens resulted in a 43-23 blowout at Heinz Field on Nov. 2, 2014 in which Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes with Brown and Bell each catching one. It was a rare occasion in which Brown went off against the Ravens, catching 11 passes for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown.
Despite averaging an incredible 102.2 receiving yards per game in 55 contests since the start of the 2013 season, the four-time Pro Bowl receiver has eclipsed the century mark in only two of his last seven contests — one in the playoffs — against the Ravens and has only one touchdown reception in his career against Baltimore.
“It is a rivalry game. We know each other,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the Baltimore defense keep Brown in check on so many occasions. “We know what they are trying to do to us. They know what we are trying to do to them. It is one of those games that, fortunately, at times, we come out on the better side or get going against them. Some of the game plan is obviously directed towards him, so we are doing what we are supposed to do if we keep him with minimal yards and catches.”
Conventional wisdom suggests Smith — the Ravens’ top cornerback — would match up with Brown wherever the 5-foot-10 receiver lines up, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees has employed different strategies in recent meetings. In Week 2 of the 2014 season, Smith traveled with Brown and held him to seven catches for 90 yards on 12 targets, but the sixth-year defensive back stayed on one side of the field in two meetings last year as the Ravens held the Pittsburgh receiver to a total of 103 receiving yards and no touchdowns.
In a conference call with the Baltimore media this week, Brown said he prefers when the opposition matches one cornerback against him because it leads to more 1-on-1 opportunities. The star wideout has faced plenty of press coverage with safety help over the top in recent games.
“There are so many factors you take into account and your defensive calls [such as] if you’re going to play more zone or you’re going to play more man,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about the decision to have a cornerback travel with a specific receiver. “All of a sudden, you’re going to try to teach a defensive back that’s in the slot how to play zone in the slot as opposed to [playing outside]. It’s easier [to travel in man coverage], because you have the man. Every time I line a guy up there and that same DB lines up there, they look at it and say, ‘If that guy lines up in the slot, they’re in man coverage.’
“You have to be able to mix and match zones and mans. There’s a lot more to it than just easily stating, ‘Let’s put our best DB on their best receiver.'”
Bell could serve as an even bigger factor on Sunday with Roethlisberger still not 100 percent less than three weeks after knee surgery. The Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in run defense, but Pittsburgh would love to unleash the star running back early to ease pressure on the hobbled quarterback.
In 2016, the 24-year-old Bell is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 7.5 receptions per game since returning from a three-game suspension.
“I tell him before every game that I’m excited to see what he is going to do,” Brown said. “You know what he brings in the running game; you know what he brings in the passing game. That is the type of guy you want to have on your team — a guy who comes to work every day, displays a good work ethic, and is a big-time player.”
The biggest key in trying to slow Bell will be the anticipated return of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Besides being the leader of a defense that gave up too many big plays in the middle of the field in his absence, Mosley is the Ravens’ best linebacker in pass coverage and leads the team with three interceptions.
In 39 career games, Bell has caught 182 passes for 1,634 yards and three touchdowns.
Injuries and off-field issues have hindered the start of his career, but Bell possesses a rare combination of patience and downhill ability that makes him dangerous every time he touches the ball.
“Guys can’t guess. If you have a gap to control, you have to control that gap,” said Pees, who labeled Bell one of the best running backs he’s faced in his long coaching career. “You have to stay on your blocker and be patient. When you get a runner like that, you have to be very disciplined on defense, too. Like I tell everybody, when he gets the ball, everybody on defense is at the point of attack because he could go anywhere at any time.”
These dynamic play-makers are the reason why the Steelers are considered the favorite to win a division consumed with mediocrity in 2016. They’re the type of special players Baltimore lacks right now.
If the Ravens want to begin turning their season around on Sunday, they can’t allow Brown and Bell to explode.
“He is one of the biggest challenges in the NFL,” said Smith about the Pittsburgh receiver. “You know what he does. We all know. It is going to take a lot to contain him and No. 26.”