The first time the Ravens’ defense squared off with Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, he manufactured his most productive NFL game.
The Ravens say they’ve learned a lot about how to defend Bell after surrendering 93 yards on 19 carries to the 6-foot-1, 244-pound second-round draft pick during a 19-16 loss to the Steelers on Oct. 20 at Heinz Field. Heading into Thursday night’s rematch at M&T Bank Stadium, Bell is a focal point for the Ravens, who have the NFL’s 11th-ranked run defense.
“We’re way aware of what Bell can do now, especially from the last time when we didn’t expect that,” outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “He came in as an angry runner and they bled us for a couple of yards. We’ve got our eyes on him more. I think we’re going to have a great defensive plan to slow him and the running game down.”
During the first game against Pittsburgh, the defensive line didn’t shed blocks quickly enough and middle linebacker Daryl Smith wasn’t able to flow freely to meet Bell in the hole before he reached top speed.
The Steelers’ running game hasn’t been consistently productive this season, ranking 30th overall in rushing offense as Bell has gained 455 yards and four touchdowns. Bell is coming off an 80-yard game last Sunday during a win over the Cleveland Browns.
“He’s a patient runner,” defensive end Chris Canty said. “Those blockers want to lay on you to create alleyways for Le’Veon Bell to take advantage of it. He does a great job of finding space, finding where you’re not and really being able to hit that hole and accelerate. It's going to take 11 hats swarming to the football to bring down Le'Veon Bell."
When Ravens center Gino Gradkowski lines up Thursday night against the Steelers, he won't be blocking Steve McLendon.
The Steelers' starting nose tackle has been ruled out because of a sprained right ankle as well as special-teams ace Curtis Brown with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Without McLendon, the Steelers could split up the snaps inside with Al Woods and Hebron Fangupo. Or defensive end Ziggy Hood could shift inside to nose tackle.
“I’ll study all those guys and we’ll figure out who’s going to be in there,” Gradkowski said. “It doesn’t affect the preparation because they’re all good players.”
The Steelers didn’t practice Monday, but did file an estimated injury report with linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (hamstring) listed as limited and efensive end Brett Keisel (foot), safety Shamarko Thomas (ankle) and linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf) participating fully.
Keisel and Woodley have missed the past two games.
“It does make a difference in terms of personnel, but it’s the same preparation against a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that’s very well-coached,” running back Ray Rice said. “When you go against [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau, it’s next man up. They’re always ready.
“You know a guy like Keisel. I’ve been going against him for the past six years. You want to see him out there for this type of game.”
This marks the second time in the past three years the Ravens have played on Thanksgiving, including a 2011 win over a San Francisco 49ers team coached by Jim Harbaugh, Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s younger brother.
John Harbaugh said he’s in favor of making this an annual tradition.
“If at any point in time, the NFL and [NFL commissioner] Roger [Goodell] wants to make this a tradition, wouldn’t we all be for that in Baltimore?” Harbaugh said. “I think that would be pretty amazing. We love it, and I know our fans do.”
The Ravens were forced to settle for four field goals against the Jets, going 0 for 4 in the red zone.
The Ravens are now tied for 20th in red-zone offense, scoring 18 touchdowns in 35 trips inside opponents’ 20-yard line.
“It’s always important to do well in the red zone,” Harbaugh said. “We’re working on the red zone really hard, and we want to get as many sevens as we can. I was happy with the fact that, in that type of game we were playing, we were able to get the points even to the point where we had four field goals. It was the difference in the game.”