It’s 2020 and much has changed in the NFL. Tom Brady is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. The New England Patriots seem to have finally regressed to the mean. The Cleveland Browns have a winning record and look like a legitimate playoff team.
But for all the turnover in the league, some things have remained the same: The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are still vying for supremacy in the AFC North, led by their stout defenses.
Sunday’s clash at M&T Bank Stadium won’t just be a meeting of the top two teams in the division, but two of the top defenses in the NFL, units that have made their mark harassing quarterbacks in a league that has overwhelmingly become centered around the position.
The Ravens (5-1) hold the league’s stingiest defense, allowing 17.3 points per game, and blitz opposing quarterbacks on a league-high 46.1% of drop-backs, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Their pressure rate of 29.2% ranks second.
Meanwhile, the Steelers (6-0) blitz on 44.3% of drop-backs, second in the league, and apply pressure at a rate of 37.1%, highest in the league.
The Ravens, however, made a trade last week for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, adding a 2017 Pro Bowl pass rusher to an already formidable unit — a move that could also change how the defense plays in some situations.
“He’s definitely a guy who can win an edge rush one-on-one. He definitely is a guy who can cause havoc,” outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said Wednesday on a video conference call.
If wrecking havoc is a key pillar for the Ravens defense, Ngakoue should be a quick learner as he prepares to make his team debut. He has more sacks than any other Ravens defender after recording five in six games with the Minnesota Vikings (defensive end Calais Campbell has four). His arrival could also make the defense more multi-dimensional and even harder for offenses to attack.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been pressured on 21.7% of his drop-backs, the second-lowest rate in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Over the years, Roethlisberger has transformed from a quarterback who often holds the ball in pursuit of deep shots to a signal-caller with one of the quickest triggers in the league.
Roethlisberger’s average time to throw this season has been 2.29 seconds, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, fastest in the NFL. As a result, his yards per attempt (6.8) are the second-lowest of his career, only behind the 2019 season in which he missed the final 14 games because of an elbow injury.
Facing an offense that’s built to negate an aggressive defense with quick passes, the Ravens could opt to drop more players in coverage and create tighter windows, something defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has been reluctant to do on a consistent basis.
As Martindale often says, football is a players' game. With Ngakoue, paired with outside linebacker Matthew Judon and offseason additions Campbell and Derek Wolfe inside, the Ravens could see greater efficacy in their use of four-man pressure packages.
“He’s able to execute the defense,” Martindale said Thursday when asked if Ngakoue’s presence could change how he fundamentally calls plays. “I’d like to answer that question but I think [Steelers coach] Mike [Tomlin] might read the transcripts for this press conference, too. [Ngakoue] just gives us an added dimension that’s going to make us better.”
Sunday’s matchup could serve as a case study for how the Ravens can play some of the better offenses on its schedule over the second half of the season — and the ones they could face in the playoffs. The Ravens' sole loss of the season to date, in Week 3 to the Kansas City Chiefs, once again highlighted a potentially fatal flaw in their otherwise impressive pass defense.
In a Monday night blowout, the Ravens failed to sack Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and seldom knocked him off his rhythm as he threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns with relative ease. Only a short list of teams are equipped to effectively emulate what Kansas City did, but those are the caliber of opponents the Ravens will have to overcome for a deep playoff run.
Brian Baldinger, a former NFL offensive lineman and current analyst for NFL Network, pointed to that loss to the Chiefs, and the Ravens' 2019 AFC divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, as examples of games in which the defense couldn’t react to team’s countering the blitz.
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While Baldinger said that he doesn’t expect wholesale changes with Ngakoue lining up for the Ravens, he’d be surprised if Martindale didn’t take a more conservative approach in some instances.
“I think if you can just rush three or rush four and still get pressure and have guys that can win one-on-ones, then you’re not going to have to rely on [safeties] DeShon Elliott or Chuck Clark or some of these blitz packages that 'Wink’ has done this year,” Baldinger said. “Now, yes, it was effective against Cincinnati and against Philadelphia and some teams that aren’t very good. But I think, against the better teams, you’re going to go against teams that have better quarterbacks, better movement there, and it would behoove them to have seven or eight there in coverage, to really shrink those windows and take guys away.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM
Line: Ravens by 4