Last Saturday, the Ravens clinched a playoff berth for the fourth time in five seasons. With Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, another competition rages on: the push for postseason positioning.
“We feel like we’re in the middle of the fight,” coach John Harbaugh said Friday. “You work really hard, you compete hard, you deal with all the ups and downs. … The NFL is a long season; it’s long for a reason. We’re in a position now where we’re playing very meaningful games.”
With a prime-time win at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens (10-5) would not only sweep Pittsburgh (7-8) and hand coach Mike Tomlin his first-ever losing season, but also set up a winner-take-all matchup in Week 18 with the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals. It won’t be easy, though. Here’s what to watch in the teams’ Week 17 matchup.
1. With Lamar Jackson set to miss his fourth straight start, Sunday’s matchup could be the best test yet of the Ravens’ rushing bona fides.
In Week 14, they had 38 designed runs for 190 yards (5 per carry) against a Pittsburgh run defense that, since All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt’s return in mid-November, ranks as the NFL’ second best, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics. Only the Ravens have fared better since Week 10.
The Steelers are coming off perhaps their best run-stopping performance of the season, too. In a 13-10 win last Saturday over Las Vegas, they held Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, the NFL’s leading rusher, to 44 yards and a season-low 2.9 per carry.
Pittsburgh will have its hands full again Sunday. Over the past three weeks, Ravens running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards have combined to average a whopping 2.9 rushing yards over expected per carry, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. And both have said they feel healthier, more explosive, each week.
“Yes, it’s slowly coming back,” said Dobbins, who, like Edwards, suffered a season-ending knee injury before the 2021 season. He recalled on Thursday telling someone that “if football was a game of 30 yards, 40 yards, I would be 100%. Legit 100%, because in quick areas, in quickness, in power and things like that, I feel 100%. I feel like the knee [injury] never happened.”
He added: “I heard that I ran, like, 20 mph, I want to say, on the one [44-yard] run I had against the Steelers, and I was like, ‘Dang.’ It’s just that extra one or two miles [per hour] that are the difference. It’s the last little bit of me; that’s what makes me, me. I’m not all the way there, but I’m getting there.”
2. Before the Ravens’ Week 15 game against the Browns, star Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett compared quarterback Tyler Huntley to a chicken. He meant it as a compliment. Trying to catch Huntley, Garrett told local reporters, “felt like you were trying to chase down a chicken, like, doused in honey or something,”
While he’s struggled in the Ravens’ structured passing game, Huntley can still lift the offense with his improvisational abilities. He just hasn’t done it too often this season. On his 30 drop-backs in which he’s left the pocket, Huntley’s 9-for-17 for 137 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, according to Pro Football Focus.
If he can keep his eyes downfield on longer-developing pass plays Sunday, Huntley should find opportunities against a subpar cornerback group. The Steelers’ defense ranks seventh in the NFL in expected points added per play against quick passes (2.5 seconds or less), according to TruMedia. (EPA is a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.)
Against longer passing plays (over 2.5 seconds), however, they’re 31st in the NFL. “We’ve just got to keep making big plays,” Huntley said Friday. “That’s it.”
3. The Steelers aren’t a big-play team. They entered Week 17 tied for 25th in the NFL in completions of 20-plus yards (36) and tied for 26th in runs of 20-plus yards (six).
But backup quarterback Mitchell Trubisky wasn’t afraid to look deep in the teams’ first meeting. After replacing injured starter Kenny Pickett, he found wide receiver Diontae Johnson for a 37-yard gain and connected with rookie wide receiver George Pickens for 42- and 25-yard gains, all on separate drives. Two of those catches led to touchdowns — Pittsburgh’s only two scores — and another likely would’ve led to at least a field goal, if not for inside linebacker Patrick Queen’s leaping interception just before halftime.
Pickett has attempted 33 passes of at least 20 air yards over his 11 games (10 starts), completing 13 for 357 yards and one touchdown, with six interceptions, according to TruMedia. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday that the first-round pick and Trubisky are “more similar than not.”
“If you’re going into a game and expecting a guy like Pickett to play, I would imagine that the menu that they’re operating off of is pretty similar once Trubisky went into the game,” Macdonald said. “So both are really good quarterbacks, operate the offense really well.”
If big plays don’t prove decisive, third-down play could. The Steelers are second in the NFL in third-down conversion rate since returning from their Week 10 bye (52%), while the Ravens have the NFL’s best third-down stop rate, with opponents converting just 32.6% overall this season.
4. Over the past four weeks, the Ravens’ red zone defense has turned into maybe the NFL’s best.
In Week 13, the Denver Broncos never got inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line. The next week, the Steelers turned four drives into just two touchdowns, with one field goal attempt blocked and another drive ended by an interception. The Cleveland Browns went 1-for-4, with a touchdown, a field goal, a missed field goal attempt and a late-game kneel-down. Last Saturday, the Atlanta Falcons went 0-for-4, settling for three field goals and turning the ball over on downs.
Overall, the Ravens have allowed just 2.6 yards per pass attempt and 1.4 yards per carry in the red zone since Week 13, according to TruMedia. Now comes a rematch with the Steelers, whose red-zone efficiency with Pickett at quarterback has been middling.
“Really, it’s a mentality once you get down there,” Macdonald said. “Man, anytime the ball is inside the 20, the reason it got down there is probably not a good reason, however you whittle it down. So it’s about staying mentally tough and staying poised. Things happen faster down there, so you have to have a great understanding of what we’re asking the guys to do on a per-play basis, what their offense likes to do, and be on the same page and communicate. So I’m just proud of how we respond in those situations to be able to get stops when we needed to.”
5. The Ravens are 18-5 in the all-black uniforms that they’ll wear Sunday night, according to the Twitter account Ravens Uniform Tracker. None of the team’s other regular uniform combinations have a higher winning percentage (.783). The Ravens wore black jerseys with black pants in their Week 5 prime-time win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
6. Sunday’s game will mark the 10th Ravens-Steelers regular-season game on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” the most played AFC matchup since NBC began broadcasting the package in 2006. The only three matchups with more “Sunday Night Football” appearances are the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, Cowboys and New York Giants, and Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.
7. The Ravens have lost eight of their past 13 matchups against Pittsburgh, but in that seven-season span, both teams have scored 277 points.
Steelers at Ravens
Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 2