The Ravens added a fourth win to their record this week at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, good enough to put them in first place in the AFC North. Wins are always satisfying in the NFL when any team can win any given Sunday. Wins are just better against Pittsburgh. Especially in the fashion that Baltimore won yesterday.
The defense put on its most dominant performance of the season in a game where the offense made enough plays to win. The final score was 21-14, but the game wasn’t nearly that close. Baltimore led the entire game, starting off with the longest play in franchise history thanks to a former Steeler.
The Ravens find themselves exactly where they wanted after their first game following the Bye Week. Their hold on the division isn’t as strong as they would like it to be, but they are still in first place. Here are my main points on yesterday’s game.
What I Liked
- Winning At Home. Baltimore has been known for protecting its house in the past. But not so much lately. Since the beginning of last season, the Ravens were 4-7 at home going into yesterday’s matchup against the Steelers. The fear that opponents had coming to Baltimore was gone during the 2015 season. That continued this year after losses to the Redskins and Raiders in consecutive weeks. Yesterday’s suffocating defense dominated against one of the explosive offenses in the NFL that seems to be struggling this year. Pittsburgh’s offense is ranked an uncharacteristic 17th in the league.
- The Entire Defense. This defense welcomed back injured players Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley with open arms Sunday. The unit swarmed Ben Roethlisberger, confused him consistently, and never allowed him to settle in and look comfortable until late in the game. The defenders all made great open field tackles throughout the game, something they had gotten away from during their losing streak. The Steelers only gained 277 yards total (only 36 on the ground), and were 4-16 on 3rd down conversions. Much of their production, and both of their touchdowns, were scored late in the game after Baltimore built a 21-0 lead. Pittsburgh’s offense did not run one play in Baltimore territory until the fourth quarter, and Roethlisberger had 54 passing yards in the first three quarters. The game could’ve been decided earlier had the defense hold on to four potential interceptions throughout the game. This defensive squad is the reason Baltimore is now leading the AFC North.
- Return Of Injured Players. I’ve written multiple times about how the Ravens needed their key injured players back to start winning again. Steve Smith Sr., C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Ronnie Stanley, and Marshal Yanda returned yesterday and snapped a four-game losing streak. The offensive line had its five starters for the first time since Week Three, and Ronnie Stanley is now 4-0 in his first four NFL games. Mosley was the highest ranked defensive player per Pro Football Focus in his first game back from injury. Smith Sr. made an impact in his first game back with four receptions for 47 yards, including a 30-yard play. The offensive line looked impressive with the starters back healthy. Ricky Wagner and Alex Lewis were the two highest rated offensive players per Pro Football Focus.
- Offensive Balance. The offense still needs to find better ways to score. Aside from Mike Wallace’s 95-yard catch-and-score, the Ravens only put up two Justin Tucker field goals and 179 yards. But, the run-pass balance was exactly what the Ravens needed. The offense ran 59 plays, with 30 passes and 29 rushes. Joe Flacco isn’t successful when he passes 45+ times a game. The run game only gained 50 yards, but it provided a much-needed balance and took pressure off Flacco throughout the contest. With more rushes, it becomes less likely for Flacco turn the ball over and keeps the ball in Baltimore’s hands. The Ravens need to keep this balance going forward, but need to be more productive with the ball.
- Special Teams. Rookie Wide Receiver Chris Moore scored his second touchdown in as many games yesterday, but it didn’t come on offense. It came after scooping up a blocked punt and returning it for six points. Against the Jets two weeks ago, Moore scored the only touchdown for Baltimore. This week his touchdown, along with a 2-point conversion, gave Baltimore a 21-0 lead that ultimately was enough to win. Justin Tucker improved to 20/20 on field goals this season. He is one of, if not the, best kicker in the league. You won’t find Tucker embarrassing himself the way Chris Boswell did yesterday on that onside attempt.
- Divisional Win. The AFC North is having an off season, and that is fine for Baltimore. A team with as much turnover that Baltimore had this offseason needs time to gel. And when injuries happen- time to get healthy. Until yesterday Baltimore hadn’t won a game since September, yet they find themselves atop the division. The losing streak may have made Baltimore fans feel glum, but the other teams in the division haven’t fared much better. Winning divisional games is the most important goal for the rest of the season after starting 2-0 vs the North.
What I Didn’t Like
- Weak Offensive Production. As stated earlier, the offensive balance was great, and it kept the ball in Joe Flacco’s hands. But Flacco’s offense needs to gain more yards and score more points. Touchdowns have been hard to come by this year, and this offense is too good to be held out of the endzone. When the starting offensive line plays, the run game is weak. In Baltimore’s four wins with a healthy line, they only average 74.25 yards per game. The pass protection is great with the starters, but the run blocking is below average. Early in the season, the team employed a committee backfield, but switched to a feature back system with the emergence of Terrance West. Hopefully, in a few games with the starting line, West can continue his breakout season behind them.
- Letting Pittsburgh Back In. The Ravens took a 21-0 lead with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter, yet the final score was 21-14. Roethlisberger led two touchdown drives and the game came down to a botched onside kick attempt. The Ravens must like playing games close, because this game could’ve been put away at that point. The offense became non-existent after the 21-point lead, and the defense couldn’t stop Roethlisberger after dominating for 3+ quarters. This defense is playing like a championship quality defense. They are firing on all cylinders and all levels of the field. The offense needs to explode during the second half of the season if Baltimore wants to win the division.
- Flacco’s Lack Of Fundamentals. Flacco has thrown off his back-foot way too often this season. It has led to inaccurate passes and interceptions consistently in each game. Flacco is coming off his first major injury in the NFL, so he could still be regaining his pre-injury form. Knee injuries are tough to bounce back from for QBs, and the offensive carousel this season hasn’t helped Flacco gain any confidence.
- The team used its Bye Week to get healthy and it paid huge dividends. Sitting 4-4 atop the division and beating Pittsburgh make the offensive problems not sting as hard. Flacco is having an off season, but there’s no reason to doubt he can gather momentum and finish the year strong. Making Pittsburgh’s high-flying offense look confused and searching for answers shows this defense is legit. If the offense keeps up its below average performances, this team will only go as far as the defense carries them.
Week Ten Preview
- The Cleveland Browns come to M&T Bank Stadium on a short week for their second match-up of the season. The Browns look hopeless, coming to Baltimore on a nine-game losing streak. In the Week Two match-up, the Browns started hot with a 20-0 lead in the first quarter. Baltimore battled back with 25 unanswered points and sealed the victory with an interception by C.J. Mosley. The Ravens have momentum and health on their side, and a home-field advantage this week against Cleveland. With a win on Thursday, Baltimore can begin to build more cushion on their division lead.