The Ravens lost quarterback Lamar Jackson to a knee injury but scratched out a 10-9 victory over the Denver Broncos. After a dreadful start, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won three of four. Which AFC North rival will have the advantage when Baltimore and Pittsburgh match up for the first time this season?
Ravens passing game vs. Steelers pass defense
Tyler Huntley relieved Lamar Jackson after the first quarter of the Ravens’ Week 13 win over the Broncos and is expected to start against Pittsburgh. He engineered the 91-yard touchdown drive that won the game but otherwise struggled to get the offense moving, completing 27 of 32 passes for 187 yards and an interception. Huntley does a good job of finding the throw available to him, and he kept the Ravens close in all four of his 2021 starts last season, one of those a season-ending loss to the Steelers. But his career average of 5.7 yards per attempt (compared to 7.4 for Jackson) tells us he rarely looks for the big strike. The Ravens were stuck in the mud even before Jackson hurt his knee; they rank 26th in Football Outsiders’ pass DVOA since their Week 10 bye after ranking fifth before that. Tight end Mark Andrews (56 catches on 86 targets, 654 yards, five touchdowns) remains option No. 1, but he’s well behind his 2021 All-Pro pace. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (33 catches on 50 targets, 338 yards) has been inconsistent as the team’s top outside-the-numbers option. Rookie tight end Isaiah Likely fought past a shoulder injury to make a vital catch and run on the game-winning drive against Denver, but the Ravens have struggled to get multiple pass catchers going more than one game at a time. Meanwhile, they missed injured left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) against the Broncos, with Patrick Mekari and rookie Daniel Faalele combining for a subpar game in pass protection.
The Ravens hope to have Stanley back in Pittsburgh to help against one of the league’s most dynamic edge rushers in T.J. Watt. Watt missed most of the season with a pectoral injury and is still “pretty beat up,” according to coach Mike Tomlin, but the Ravens know too well how he can wreck a game. The Steelers’ pass defense was below average through 10 weeks but has picked up recently, led by Watt, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, edge rusher Alex Highsmith (10 sacks) and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (four interceptions, eight passes defended), who grades as the best in the league at his position, per Pro Football Focus. The Steelers rank fifth in the league in blitz rate but 30th in pressures per drop-back, so their pass rush has not produced to its usual level.
Steelers passing game vs. Ravens pass defense
The Steelers have endured expected growing pains from rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, who has thrown just four touchdown passes against eight interceptions. But Pickett is an accurate thrower and has hardly been a disaster since taking over for Mitchell Trubisky. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson is his No. 1 option (61 catches on 105 targets, 561 yards) while rookie George Pickens (13.8 yards per catch) is his most dynamic. Tight end Pat Freiermuth (50 catches on 76 targets) and running backs Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris are also key elements to this passing attack.
The Ravens have allowed efficient passing performances the last two weeks from Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Russell Wilson of the Broncos, so they’ll hope to get back on track against Pickett. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey has returned to a Pro Bowl level for the Ravens, who were also happy to have rookie Kyle Hamilton at nickel back against the Broncos after a knee injury sidelined him in Week 12. The Broncos converted on just two of 12 third downs against the Ravens, who rank second overall in third-down defense. They closed out drives despite generating relatively little pressure and giving up more yards than they would have liked when they blitzed. Though outside linebacker Justin Houston still leads the team with nine sacks, defensive end Calais Campbell (5 ½ sacks, 14 quarterback hits) has been the more effective pass rusher in recent weeks. Starting safeties Chuck Clark and Geno Stone played below their usual levels against Wilson, and Stone could soon cede his snaps to Marcus Williams, who’s on track to return as early as this week. The Ravens hope he’ll bring turnovers with him.
Ravens running game vs. Steelers run defense
We’re used to watching the Ravens sputter through the air, but their ground attack also stalled against Denver with Jackson out of the picture. Huntley scrambled well at times and converted an essential fourth down on a designed run but has to prove he can make those orchestrated carries work consistently. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry (including a 72-yard performance against Pittsburgh) last season, so he has the ability. Running back Gus Edwards has not looked explosive — 64 yards on 22 carries — in the two games since he returned from a hamstring injury. The Ravens turned to Kenyan Drake down the stretch against the Broncos, in part because he’s more of a threat as a receiver.
The Steelers have improved their run defense considerably after a disastrous performance this season. Heyward is always excellent on the interior, and he’s received dependable support from former Ravens defensive lineman Chris Wormley and from Highsmith on the edge. Linebacker Myles Jack is their leading playmaker in the middle. The Ravens rushed for 249 yards against the Steelers in the regular-season finale last year, but Pittsburgh has not given up more than 146 in any of its last nine games.
Steelers running game vs. Ravens run defense
The Steelers have gone from one of the league’s worst running teams over the first half of the season to one of the best over the last four weeks. Harris has rushed for 310 and three touchdowns during that more successful span, and Warren, recently slowed by a hamstring injury, is an efficient alternative when healthy. Pickett (42 carries, 209 yards, three touchdowns) is also a threat if left unattended.
Pittsburgh will try to maintain its roll against a Ravens run defense that hit another level after linebacker Roquan Smith arrived via trade. Smith was the best defensive player on the field against Denver, and the Ravens have not allowed an opponent to rush for more than 88 yards with him in the lineup. They would miss Smith’s partner, Patrick Queen, if he’s sidelined by a thigh bruise suffered against the Broncos, but Queen was optimistic Wednesday that he’d be ready for the the Steelers. Campbell and Broderick Washington have excelled upfront, and Hamilton gives the Ravens an additional thumper from the nickel spot when he’s in the game.
Ravens special teams vs. Steelers special teams
The Ravens continue to lead the league in special-teams DVOA, though returner Devin Duvernay has been off his usual All-Pro form in recent weeks. Justin Tucker has made 25 of 28 field goal attempts this season, with all of his misses from 56 yards or beyond. Jordan Stout has put 20 of his 43 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
The Steelers rank 27th in special teams DVOA, though they mix real strengths on punt coverage and kickoff returns with deficiencies on kickoff coverage and punt returns. Kicker Chris Boswell is expected to play against the Ravens after coming off injured reserve. He made 12 of 16 field goal attempts earlier in the season.
Ravens intangibles vs. Steelers intangibles
The Ravens were thrilled to escape with a win over the Broncos after they lost Jackson and could not move the ball for 55 minutes. But they’re on shaky ground as they try to fix their offense while they await the return of their franchise quarterback. They seemed set to rampage through the second half of the season. Instead, they might find themselves clinging to a playoff spot, with every week a test of coach John Harbaugh’s resourcefulness.
The Steelers seemed headed for the worst season of coach Mike Tomlin’s career, but he has them pointed back toward .500 with improvements on defense and to their running game. Tomlin always keeps his team engaged, even with a playoff berth likely out of reach.
This shapes up as a classic Ravens-Steelers brawl in which neither offense will thrive. The Ravens will have to shut down Pittsburgh’s running game and force a few mistakes from rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, because they’re less dynamic with Tyler Huntley playing in place of Lamar Jackson. But the Steelers’ defensive stars will carry the day. Steelers 17, Ravens 16