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. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on the scheme, Jonathan on the players.
Continuing things with the Baltimore Ravens’ defense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
RAVENS RUN DEFENSE
Stout like always. Now, they may be without DL Calais Campbell, one of their anchors in the middle and that’s certainly a worry for him. He’s been hurt and didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday. But their defense is more than one man. On the year, they’re allowing just 3.8 YPC, third-best in football. They’ve also allowed just 32 runs of 10+ yards, also third-best. It’s an old-school group with a physically strong defensive line that takes on blocks and allows their linebackers to eat.
And eat they are. Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen made their names known in the first Steelers’ matchup and they’re all-situational people for Baltimore. Over the last three weeks, Queen has been on the field 91%+ of the time each game while Smith has been at 95%+. 1st and 10, 3rd and long, whatever the case, those guys don’t come off the field. 3rd and 10? Yup, they’re staying out there.
On the year, Queen leads the team with 106 tackles and has come on strong after a bumpy start to the year. In seven games with Baltimore, Smith has 62 tackles. The corners are active tacklers too. Marlon Humphrey has 69 of them while Marcus Peters has 47 and combined, those two have forced three fumbles. Humphrey punched a ball out last week and is well-known for doing it, having a league-high eight in 2020.
Schematically, I’ll echo the things I wrote about just a couple weeks ago. This unit is hard to run on. They two-gap well, force backs to change their path and run away from the scheme/playcall. They string runs out to the edge well, they’re a fast-flow defense with linebackers who chase and they prevent cutback lanes.
No matter what Pittsburgh does, it’ll be tough sledding. A more downhill approach is probably the best method and hope to get 3.5 yards per carry and avoid negative plays that will kill drives.
Some other defensive stats for you guys. The Ravens are three’s wild when it comes to defensive stats, allowing 18.1 PPG this year. Offenses have been held to 14 or fewer points i their last four and they’ve only allowed more than 22 points in one of their last nine games. So this defense is winning most of these games and certainly keeping the score down, stepping up with their QB out similar to the Steelers’ mentality in 2019. The defense has 24 takeaways, tied-4th in the league with a strong turnover differential.
Situationally, they’ve been great on third down (37.6% – 3rd) and in the red zone (48% – 4th). Big reason why they keep scores down.
RAVENS PASS GAME
Some of the numbers don’t look pretty. Allowing opposing QBs to complete 67.6% of their passes, 28th in the league, while the 7.4 YPA they’re allowing isn’t much prettier at 7.4. But like their above red zone number suggests, they’re bending and not breaking and allowed just 18 passing touchdowns this year, easily a top-ten figure.
Their defense takes the football away with 14 picks on the season, tied fifth-most. Safety Marcus Williams paces the team with four interceptions, including one against the Steelers, while Humphrey has three. What Smith and Queen did to the Steelers was no fluke and the Ravens’ linebackers have a combined five interceptions on the year. They make big plays.
The Ravens have 44 sacks on the year, fifth-most in football. Veteran Justin Houston leads the team with nine sacks but the numbers here are a bit skewed. 8.5 of those sacks came across Week 1-9 and he’s only had a half-sack since. They get sacks from plenty of people with ten Ravens have 2+ QB takedowns on the year. Their DBs have a collected 6.5 of them while Humphrey leads that group with three.
On the year, they’re average in allowing explosive pass plays, 43 of them gaining 20+ yards. That’s tied for 16th in the league.
Schematically, the Ravens play plenty of zone as they presented in the Steelers’ matchup so Pittsburgh’s receivers are going to have to find the soft spot and work leverage. Baltimore’s veteran and talented secondary likes to rotate coverages post-snap and present different looks. They do present a lot of two-high looks, Cover 2/4/6 and those family of coverages.
On third down, they will mug up and use their sim pressures and play more man coverage, even some Cover 0. One area you could exploit are the sidelines. The boot and sideline came has generally been effective in recent weeks to work against the Ravens’ aggressive and fast-flow defense. Couple examples here and I think the boot/playaction game will be something Matt Canada uses heavily in this one.
JONATHAN”S INDIVIDUAL REPORT
The Steelers are still alive heading into Week 17 as they head into Baltimore on Sunday night in a must-win game against the Ravens to keep their playoff hopes alive while getting some help along the way. QB Lamar Jackson is trending in the wrong direction for Sunday’s contest, meaning that Pittsburgh will expect to face QB Tyler Huntley for the second time in four weeks. While Huntley was knocked out of the first matchup, the Ravens relied on their run-heavy offense as well as their defense to secure victory. Pittsburgh will have to do a better job protecting the football in the rematch against an opportunistic defense to secure victory in this AFC North matchup.
The Ravens will be without run stopper #58 Michael Pierce Sunday who currently is on IR with a biceps injury. One grizzled veteran that will be in the lineup for Baltimore is #93 Calais Campbell. Campbell may be 36 years old, but he appears to have found the fountain of youth, playing at a high level this season for Baltimore along the defensive line. The 6’8, 300lb giant is a sound run defender, using his length and strength to stack and shed blocks at the LOS. He also is a quality pass rusher, having 5.5 sacks thus far in 2022 and two forced fumbled as Baltimore’s leader upfront. Still, Campbell missed last week’s game with a knee injury and could potentially miss Sunday night’s matchup.
The player stepping in for Pierce at NT is one of my 2022 draft crushes, #98 Travis Jones. The Ravens snagged Jones at a value in the third round this spring, drafted a hulking 6’4, 327lb monster that can single-handedly manhandle interior offensive linemen. Jones has great strength and size to hold his own at the point of attack but also the quickness to get off blocks and push the pocket as a pass rusher. #92 Justin Madubuike starts alongside Jones and Campbell as a stout, powerful run defender that also has good play strength against the run. Madubuike also brings some pass rush juice to the table, having 4.5 sacks as an athletic defender who can play chase of the ball with great pursuit.
Backing up the starters are #97 Brett Urban and #96 Broderick Washington who rotate in as big-bodied run defenders who don’t bring a lot of pass rush juice to the table but hold their own well against the run as they give the starters a breather throughout the game.
The Ravens have gone to the veteran pool for multiple starters on defense including former All-Pro pass rusher #50 Justin Houston. Houston was once one of the best sack artists in the least a decade ago but was hampered by injuries during his time in Kansas City, seeing himself move to Indianapolis and now Baltimore. While turning 34 in January, Houston is in the midst of one of his better seasons in recent years, posting nine sacks and a forced fumble for the Ravens. Baltimore limits Houston’s snaps to keep him fresh, but he will rush off the edge as well as stacked as an ILB to get him mismatches against interior OL to go hunt the QB.
Beside Houston is another veteran pass rusher that is in the twilight of his career but is providing meaningful snaps for Baltimore in #4 Jason Pierre-Paul. The long-time Giant and Buccaneer signed with the Ravens during the season and has boosted their pass rush, adding an experienced defender that brings impressive length and size (6’5, 270lb) to the table as well as a knack for getting to the QB. JPP isn’t the player he used to be, but still can contribute with two sacks and an INT this season that can overwhelm blockers.
Rotating in for the ravens on the edge are #99 Odafe Oweh. Oweh with Baltimore first round pick last season out of Penn State, giving the Ravens an ultra-athletic yet extremely raw edge rusher. He has ceded the starting job to JPP due to inconsistent play but is still playing roughly 66% of the defensive snaps as he continues to develop as a pass rusher in terms of hand usage well giving the Ravens a run-and-chase defender.
While not the flashy producer are EDGE for Baltimore, #54 Tyus Bowser technically starts for the Ravens after coming off an Achilles tear Week 18 last season against the Steelers. Another athletic pass rusher, Bowser has played in seven games this season and has started the last four. Bowser gives Baltimore a chess piece that can play on the edge, move off-ball, and drop into coverage. He had seven sacks last season and looks to ramp up more after being nearly a year removed from the injury.
The Ravens made a splash prior to the trade deadline, acquiring LB #18 Roquan Smith from the Chicago Bears. Since arriving in Baltimore, Smith has been everything the Ravens could have hoped for when they traded for him, providing an athletic, instinctive LB that excels in run-and-chase situations. He reads extremely well pre-and-post snap and flows to the football with ease, covering ground laterally against the run. He has 144 total tackles and 4.5 sacks thus far in 2022 along with three INTs, one coming against Pittsburgh in their last matchup. Smith a field general in the middle of the defense that has stabilized Baltimore at the second level that can run, hit, and cover with the best of them in the NFL.
Smith plays beside another former first round pick in the LB core for Baltimore in #6 Patrick Queen. Queen is an athletic, explosive defender that accelerates quickly to the football and brings nasty intentions as a big hitter. He has struggled at times during his young NFL career in terms of pass coverage and getting off blocks against the run but is playing some of his best football this season, posting 106 total stops, five sacks, a forced fumble, six PBUs, and two INTs (the last one coming against Pittsburgh). Queen gives Baltimore a dynamic duo in the middle, being paired with Smith as two LBs that can run, hit, and cover when allowed to move freely to the football.
Behind Smith and Queen is #40 Malik Harrison who used to have a bigger role before Smith came to town and is a better downhill run defender than pass coverage defender. #56 Josh Bynes also played a much bigger role before Smith’s arrival, but still factors in a lot in rotation with Queen as an experienced run defender that does a good job shooting gaps. #57 Kristin Welch rounds out the LB core and a core special teams contributor.
While the Ravens are near the bottom of the barrel in total passing yards allowed on the season, they have arguably one of the best CBs in the game in #44 Marlon Humphrey. Humphrey has been dominant in man coverage at times this season, shutting down some of the game’s best receivers when in man coverage. He makes plays all over the field for the Ravens, tallying 69 total stops, three TFLs, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, seven PBUs, and three INTs. Humphrey is a physical corner that can go toe-to-toe with a team’s WR1 or come downhill against the run or on a designed blitz. Still, George Pickens got the better of him at times in Week 14, suggesting Pittsburgh should give him some changes against Humphrey.
Opposite of Humphrey is #24 Marcus Peters who is a talented player in his own right but is more of a feast-or-famine type of player. Peters is one of the most feared ball hawks in the game, having a knack for jumping the route in off-man or zone coverage for the pick and taking it the other way. However, Peters gets burned a fair amount in coverage as well, allowing a 64% completion percentage this season for 711 yards and seven TDs, the most TDs allowed in coverage in his career according to Pro Football Reference. Peters may miss this game as he is dealing with a calf injury that held him out of last week’s contest and hasn’t practiced early this week.
The Ravens have #21 Brandon Stephens contributing as well in coverage, playing a fair amount in sub packages and has five pass deflections to his credit. #41 Daryl Worley is another long, reserve CB on the roster, having played less snaps for the defense having played in only two games this season. Rookie #22 Damarion Williams has gotten more run as the season has gone on for Baltimore in the slot, being a smaller (5’10, 178lb) but feisty defender who holds his own in coverage and provides good run support.
S #32 Marcus Williams was one of Baltimore’s key additions this offseason coming over from New Orleans on a big money deal. However, the star centerfield free safety went on IR early in the season after suffering a dislocated wrist. Williams got activated in-time for Baltimore’s first game against Pittsburgh, nabbing an INT against Trubisky which would be his third of the day. Williams is a certified ballhawk, having the instincts and range to roam the backend of the defense and make plays on the football, having 19 INTs and 44 PBUs since entering the league in 2017.
One safety that will suit up for the Ravens is #36 Chuck Clark who is the definition of a Swiss Army Knife-type of player. Clark has played 100% of the defensive snaps this season and aligns all over the defense from being a split zone safety to a box/strong safety to nickel corner to outside corner and even on the edge at times for the defense. Clark provides good run defense as a steady player. He may not be a splashy playmaker, but he is a glue guy that helps the defense go with his ability to play literally anywhere.
#26 Geno Stone filled in well since Williams went done to injury. The Iowa product has provided steady play on the backend, picking up a forced fumble and fumble recovery along with 38 tackles. Still, Stone lacks great athleticism and can be taken advantage of in man coverage, being better when allowed to work in zone and flow to the ball when in the air in off coverage to make plays.
Baltimore’s crown jewel of the draft class started out shaky but has come into his own more throughout the 2022 season. #14 Kyle Hamilton has only technically started his last two games on the season, but has played 49% of the snaps, getting a lot of work in the nickel/dime as a slot defender as well as in the box. Hamilton is currently Pro Football Focus’s highest rated rookie safety, having the size, athleticism, and closing speed to be a menace against the run as well as playing chase to ball carriers in the open field or along the sideline.