Matchup: Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) +4 @ Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
Time and place: 1 p.m. EST at M&T Bank Stadium
Tidbit: This will be the first time quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Lamar Jackson suit up against each other.
KEY #1: Stay in your lane
Clearly, the Ravens offense is built around the threat of Lamar Jackson running the football. Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman does a great job of putting defenders into positions of conflict, forcing them to make split decisions as Jackson and the running game cuts their way up the field.
Jackson's speed sets the tone for the entire offense. You can't allow him to get the edge because he's the fastest player on the field. On this first down, Eagles defender Brandon Graham bites on the option fake to running back Gus Edwards and Jackson takes off for an easy 9 yards.
Two plays later, the Ravens run a similar concept except they give the ball to Edwards. The Eagles defense, including number 23 Rodney McLeod, become so concerned with stopping Jackson that they give Edwards a clean path to the end zone.
Even with the league's toughest run defense, it's likely that Jackson will pop off a few impressive runs. The key is to limit these plays by maintaining gap integrity without over-pursuit on options and play action. It may seem counterintuitive based on Jackson's speed, but calculated patience is necessary when playing against the Ravens.
KEY #2: Force Jackson to play fast in the passing game
Pittsburgh's greatest strength defensively should have a chance to thrive in this game. When it comes to passing, the best way to stop Jackson is to get pressure and make him play quickly and with precision.
Here's Lamar rushing a throw because of the blitz and missing a receiver who got a good release in man coverage.
The Steelers stand a good chance of slowing Lamar down if they can get in his face. On this play, he makes a risky throw in coverage after dropping his eyes due to interior pressure.
KEY #3: Don't turn the ball over
Quite frankly, the Steelers were lucky to escape Tennessee with a win despite being -3 in the turnover battle as well as putting the ball on the carpet two other times. This simply cannot happen against the Ravens, who are too good at ball control and red zone offense to let a similar performance slide.
Big Ben threw 3 picks against the Titans, but one of them was a tipped pass, so let's look at the other two.
The first took place with 14 seconds left in the half and no timeouts. The Steelers are slightly out of field goal range and run 4 verticals against a soft zone from the Titans. Had Ben made a perfect throw to the back corner of the end zone, this play might have actually resulted in a touchdown. Instead, he leaks it slightly toward the safety and it results in a pick. Given his options, this throw was the right one to make. If anything, we can question the design of the play. Perhaps a throw to the sideline to set up a field goal would have been better?
The third and most controversial interception took place as Pittsburgh was going in to ice the game. It's 3rd and long and the Titans are playing Cover 2. Roethlisberger sees JuJu is being covered by a linebacker and takes a shot. Roethlisberger could have gone underneath to Diontae Johnson, but it's very likely he would have been stopped short of the sticks. Yes, 4th down and a field goal opportunity would have been better than the interception. Better ball placement would have been nice but this actually wasn't a horrible decision. We've learned to live and die with Ben rolling the dice at times and it is part of what make him great. Hats off the the Titans for making a great play in what seemed like a favorable matchup for the Steelers. Still, Ben and the offense will need to avoid turnovers in order to beat the Ravens.
KEY #4: Push and pull
For the most part, James Conner and the offensive line were extremely effective against Tennessee. The Steelers did a nice job of pushing the Titans front 7 backwards and utilizing pulling guards to create defined running lanes. I love the work that Matt Feiler and Vance McDonald put in on this 7 yard run as Conner cuts through the second level.
And here's David Decastro helping to seal the edge for a 9 yard gain. If there's anything we know about the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, it's that it will be physical. Winning in the trenches will be crucial to winning on the scoreboard.
KEY #5: Field position matters
While both the Steelers and Ravens sport explosive offenses, the anchor of these teams is their defenses. The Steelers are the number one defense in terms of yards per game and the Ravens are the number one defense in terms of points per game. Naturally, forcing your opponent to go a longer way down the field is a massive advantage in a game like this.
Here's an example of special teams ace Jordan Dangerfield making a great tackle in kickoff coverage. Limiting explosive plays in special teams will go a long way toward bottling up the Ravens as a whole.