Advertisement

Nickel package: Five things to watch in Ravens vs. Steelers

Nickel package: Five things to watch in Ravens vs. Steelers
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talk after their Week 2 meeting earlier this season. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

As the Ravens (5-3) square off against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3) at Heinz Field on Sunday night, here's Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson's checklist of things to keep an eye on:

1. Joe Flacco

Advertisement

Given Flacco's substandard performance against the Cincinnati Bengals and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's six-touchdown game against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday, Flacco's sustained run of success against the Steelers has been somewhat overlokoed. In his past eight games against the Steelers, Flacco has averaged 221.8 passing yards per game, with 10 touchdowns and one interception overall. Against the Steelers earlier this season, Flacco completed 21 of 29 passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 109.3 quarterback rating. Flacco has played solidly at Heinz Field, too. He is 3-3 there, winning three of his past four games. He has completed 125 of 206 passes for 1,293 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions at Pittsburgh for his career.

The Steelers will be without top cornerback Ike Taylor (broken forearm). Led by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, creator of the zone blitz, the Steelers rank just 19th in pass defense, allowing 250.1 passing yards per game, and 21st in scoring defense, giving up 24.5 points per game.

2. Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers running back has emerged as one of the top all-purpose backs in the NFL.  At 6 feet 1 and 244 pounds, Bell has good size, speed, moves and hands. He's third in the NFL in rushing yards with 571 and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He also has 42 catches out of the backfield for 395 yards and one touchdown.

How well Ravens rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley does in shadowing Bell will go a long way in determining how effective the Ravens will be against the Steelers' ninth-ranked rushing offense.

"With Bell, he's a guy that's going to be patient," Mosley said. "Once he makes that one cut, he can break for 30-yard runs. As a whole, we just have to make sure that we tackle very well."

3. Martavis Bryant

The Ravens are well aware of how dangerous Steelers veteran wide receiver Antonio Brown can be. He leads the NFL with 60 catches and has 852 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

Now that rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant is healthy, Brown is no longer the Steelers' only formidable receiver.

A fourth-round draft pick who was overshadowed at Clemson by Sammy Watkins, the Buffalo Bills' star rookie wide receiver, Bryant is an excellent athlete. Out for the first six games with a shoulder injury, Bryant has caught seven passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns over the past two games. He's averaging 17.6 yards per reception. Against the Colts, Bryant caught five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns.

The Ravens will have to account in their defensive matchups for Bryant, who combines standout size (6-4, 211 pounds), speed and leaping ability.

4. Ravens secondary

With their best cornerback, Jimmy Smith, out for several weeks with a sprained left foot, Ravens defensive backs are about to be tested by Ben Roethlisberger's strong right arm and the Steelers' strong receiving corps.

Their best hope to contain Pittsburgh's passing game is by disrupting Roethlisberger's timing with a strong pass rush. They'll also need veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb to make plays on the ball.

Advertisement

Webb slowly has been getting healthier and quicker as he continues to recover from a lower-back injury. For most of the season, Webb has been reacting well enough to tackle receivers after the catch and prevent touchdowns. He has defended three passes and recorded 20 tackles.

Overall, Webb has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 21 of 29 passes in his direction for 268 yards for a 100.9 quarterback rating. Against the Bengals last Sunday, matched up against wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, Webb allowed quarterback Andy Dalton to complete three of four passes for 73 yards.

The Ravens need a big game out of Webb and a viable showing from journeyman cornerback Dominique Franks in place of Smith. They'll also need cornerback Chykie Brown, inactive for the past two games, to play much better than he did earlier this season. They Ravens probably will use safeties Anthony Levine and Matt Elam as nickel backs, too.

5. Jacoby Jones

With rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill) out with a pulled hamstring, the Ravens must have better ball security on punt returns. Jones already has muffed two punts this season and mishandled a kickoff return he got control of. Jones' confidence as a receiver looks shot; he's caught just four passes for 50 yards after signing a $12 million contract in March. That amounts to $3 million per catch. He's averaged only 8.2 yards per punt return and 27.9 yards per kickoff return. The Ravens can use Webb to fair-catch punts if they decide they can no longer trust Jones. On kickoff returns,  the Ravens' second-best option is Deonte Thompson. However, the speedster remains on the practice squad. All signs point toward the Ravens giving Jones another chance.

Advertisement
Advertisement