The Ravens will try to ride advantages in the run game and on special teams to keep their slim playoff hopes alive in their regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s who had the edge in each phase:
Ravens passing game vs. Steelers pass defense
With Lamar Jackson sidelined for the fourth straight game with an ankle injury, Tyler Huntley will make his fourth start of the season. Huntley completed 20 of 32 passes for 197 yards and an interception in the team’s 20-19 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He was frustrated with the offense’s inability to finish drives in the end zone, especially in the fourth quarter. The Ravens have depended on shorter, quicker throws with Huntley and Josh Johnson at quarterback. Huntley averages 7.5 air yards per attempt, compared with 9.6 for Jackson, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews (99 catches on 138 targets, 1,276 yards, 9 touchdowns) set a new single-season receiving yards record against the Rams and would set the Ravens’ single-season mark for receptions with five catches against the Steelers. He has averaged 103 yards over his past five games. Marquise Brown (88 catches on 138 targets, 981 yards) could reach 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his three-year career but has served as more of an underneath target with Huntley at quarterback. Rookie Rashod Bateman caught seven passes on 10 targets against the Rams and has picked up first downs on 28 of his 44 receptions this season.
The Ravens’ offensive line struggled to protect Huntley from the Rams’ talented defensive front and will face another daunting test with the league’s best pass rusher, T.J. Watt, coming to town. Watt (21 ½ sacks, 36 quarterback hits in 14 games) was the best player on the field in Pittsburgh’s 20-19 win over the Ravens last month and could break Michael Strahan’s NFL single-season sacks record of 22 ½. Cameron Heyward (9 sacks, 16 quarterback hits) presents nearly as large a problem on the interior as Watt does from the edge. If the Ravens allow seven sacks as they did in Week 13, they will be hard-pressed to win. The Steelers rank 12th in pass defense and are vulnerable in the secondary, where players such as cornerback Cameron Sutton and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick have not played up to their 2020 standards.
Steelers passing game vs. Ravens pass defense
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could wrap up his 18-year career Sunday. He now relies on getting rid of the ball quickly (league-best average time to throw of 2.37 seconds) rather than extending plays and ranks 29th in yards per attempt. But he still had enough in the tank (21 of 31, 236 yards, 2 touchdowns) to rally the Steelers past the Ravens in Week 13. His top target, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, led Pittsburgh with 105 yards and two touchdowns in that victory and will play after a short stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Roethlisberger also looks frequently to tight end Pat Freiermuth (54 catches on 70 targets, 7 touchdowns) and running back Najee Harris (70 catches on 90 targets, 444 yards) as underneath options. His chief deep threat, Chase Claypool (15.2 yards per catch) has struggled through a wildly inconsistent second season. The Steelers placed wide receiver James Washington on the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday.
The Ravens sacked Roethlisberger just once and forced no turnovers in the Week 13 matchup. They hope to build on their performance against the Rams, in which safety Chuck Clark picked off two passes and linebacker Tyus Bowser stripped Matthew Stafford in the red zone. Those turnovers, scarce for most of the season, put them in position to pull an upset. The Ravens rank 32nd in pass defense and will take on Roethlisberger with a battered secondary. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey suffered a season-ending injury the last time they played the Steelers, and cornerback Anthony Averett’s status is up in the air after he hurt his ribs in Week 16. Veteran Jimmy Smith started and played every defensive snap against the Rams after playing sparingly most of the season. Bowser leads the team with seven sacks, and the Ravens hope rookie Odafe Oweh will join him for the regular-season finale after he missed the Rams game with a foot injury.
Ravens running game vs. Steelers run defense
Devonta Freeman produced one of his best games of the season against the Rams, rushing 14 times for 76 yards and breaking a 32-yard run to kick-start a fourth-quarter scoring drive. Huntley (6 carries, 54 yards) also hurt the Rams with his legs and is averaging 6.3 yards per carry on the season. Fullback Patrick Ricard and tight end Nick Boyle were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday, likely costing the Ravens two of their best blockers for yet another week.
The Steelers have crashed to 31st in run defense, and the Ravens were dissatisfied with the 107 ground yards they managed against them in Week 13. Many teams, from the Minnesota Vikings to the Tennessee Titans, have done better at exploiting this weakness. With middle linebacker Devin Bush struggling and several interior stalwarts injured, the Steelers simply have not held up in a traditional area of strength.
Steelers running game vs. Ravens run defense
Harbaugh called Harris “one of the great young backs in this league.” The rookie is coming off his best game (28 carries, 188 yards) as a pro on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers rely on Harris as their only significant running threat, and their offensive line did not give him much room to work for most of the season. The Ravens held him to 71 yards on 21 carries in Week 13, but he did gouge them on Pittsburgh’s go-ahead scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens still lead the league in rush defense. Their best interior lineman, Calais Campbell, returned to a full workload against the Rams. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Patrick Queen (10 tackles for loss) might be the best inside linebacker in the AFC North, though Queen delivered a subpar, one-tackle performance against the Rams.
Ravens special teams vs. Steelers special teams
Baltimore Ravens Insider
The Ravens rank first in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA. Justin Tucker has made 33 of 35 field-goal attempts and is headed for his third straight Pro Bowl. Pro Bowl returner Devin Duvernay missed Week 16 with an ankle injury but played against the Rams. Punter Sam Koch (40.7-yard net average) is finishing up another solid season.
The Steelers rank 19th in special teams DVOA despite excellent work from kicker Chris Boswell, who has made 33 of 37 field-goal attempts, including eight of nine from 50 yards or beyond. They attempted to address their struggles elsewhere by bringing in a new punter, Corliss Waitman, after Week 15.
Ravens intangibles vs. Steelers intangibles
Both teams will enter with slim hopes of making the playoffs. Plenty of Steelers fans will likely find their way into M&T Bank Stadium to celebrate Roethlisberger’s final bow. Will that emotion carry over to the players? The Steelers have struggled to move the ball and stop the run for most of the year, but Tomlin still has them over .500, and they’ve won three in a row against the Ravens.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, has kept his team competitive in the face of terrible injury luck. The Ravens have lost five in a row, but four of those five — including their previous game against the Steelers — came by a combined five points. They are tired of coming up just short and desperate to finish this difficult season on a high note.
This is not your usual Ravens-Steelers heavyweight slugfest. Both teams are dragging themselves over the finish line after difficult seasons. Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song will dominate the headlines going in, but the Ravens will exploit advantages in the run game and on special teams to pull out a low-scoring alley fight. Ravens 23, Steelers 17