2015 NFL Playoffs: Baltimore at Pittsburgh Preview

The 2015 NFL Playoffs kick off with a wild card round matchup between division rivals as the Ravens face the Steelers. The Baltimore at Pittsburgh preview has what to look for on game day.

The Matchup

WHO: Baltimore Ravens (10-6 – #6 Seed) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5 – #3 Seed)

WHEN: Saturday, January 3 – 8:15 p.m. EST (NBC)

WHERE: Heinz Field – Pittsburgh, PA

Familiar foes meet in the Saturday night matchup on NBC. The Steelers won the AFC North with a flawless December, posting wins over Cincinnati, Atlanta, Kansas City and the Bengals again to secure the division title. The Ravens secured the last AFC playoff spot on the final day of the season with a victory over Cleveland, coupled with San Diego’s loss in Kansas City. These teams met twice in the regular season, with the Ravens winning in Week 2, and the Steelers emerging victorious at home in Week 9.

When Baltimore Has the Football

Baltimore’s Passing Game against Pittsburgh’s Defense

Joe Flacco leads the league’s 13th-best passing attack, averaging just over 230 yards per game. The quarterback completed 62.1% of his passes for 3,986 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In the two games against Pittsburgh he completed 51 of 74 passes for 469 yards and four TDs, with one INT.

Flacco generally likes to work underneath, and games against the Steelers are no exception. The Ravens attempt to isolate their running backs and tight ends against Pittsburgh’s linebackers in man coverage situations to exploit mismatches. On this play from Week 2, the QB is under center and the offense has 12 personnel on the field. Tight end Owen Daniels aligns in a three-point stance to the left of the line, while Pittsburgh’s base 3-4 defense uses Cover 1 in the secondary:

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Daniels runs a post route against inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (#94). The TE fakes to the outside and then cuts in, sending the ILB sprawling. Flacco hits Daniels between the numbers and the Ravens have an easy first down.

Justin Forsett picks up a big gain on an option route on this play from Week 9. Baltimore again uses 12 personnel with Forsett as the single-back. As Flacco drops to throw the RB bursts through the right-side B gap and puts another out-and-in move on inside linebacker Sean Spence (#51):

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The LB slips on Forsett’s fake, and the RB hauls in the throw and races downfield for a 21-yard gain.

While the Ravens do most of their passing underneath, Flacco does take his shots deep when available. The QB has a strong arm and good touch on the deep ball, and benefits from the strict rules that curb defensive play. On this Week 9 play, he looks downfield against Pittsburgh’s Cover 3:

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At the top of the screen, cornerback Brice McCain (#25) is across from Torrey Smith using “press-bail” technique. When the CB tries to jam the WR, he fails. This allows Smith to use his speed to race away from the defender. Flacco leads the receiver perfectly and the Ravens have a 35-yard scoring strike.

Baltimore’s Running Game against Pittsburgh’s Defense

Baltimore typically runs the ball very well against the Steelers. In their two meetings the Ravens attempted 54 running plays, gaining 220 yards, for an average of 4.1 yards per carry and 110 yards per game. Part of the reason for Baltimore’s success on the ground in 2014 is the play from fullback Kyle Juszczyk. The Harvard-product is a tremendous lead blocker. In this play from Week 9, the Ravens run a halfback power lead out of the offset i-formation against the Steelers, who have eight in the box:

Watch as the FB seals off the edge for Forsett:

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With the edge cleared the running back has room for a big gain.

On another Week 9 play, the Ravens align Juszczyk to the left as a wing-TE. They run Forsett off-tackle to the left and the FB cuts across the formation to block the back-side OLB. But when the RB needs to bounce the run, he follows Mr. Harvard:

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Juszczyk again seals the edge and, thanks to his block, Forsett turns this play from a negative to a positive in a hurry.

But lest you think Mr. Harvard only works on the edges, think again. The FB is just as happy working inside on the bigger guys. Witness this collision between Juszczyk and Jacksonville inside linebacker J.T. Thomas:

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Watch #44 for Baltimore when he is in the game. It is likely he will lead you right to the ball.

When Pittsburgh Has the Football

Pittsburgh’s Passing Game against Baltimore’s Defense

Something very interesting showed up when re-watching the first two meetings between these teams. During the first five quarters Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 48 times. Baltimore blitzed him (defined for this exercise as sending five or more rushers) on only four of those plays. During those first five quarters Baltimore outscored Pittsburgh 33-6. Roethlisberger completed 26 of 44 passes for 247 yards and one interception over the first five quarters.

In the final three quarters, the QB dropped to throw 35 times and the Ravens blitzed 16 times. During those frames, Pittsburgh outscored Baltimore 43-16 and Roethlisberger completed 21 of 30 passes for 310 yards and six touchdowns.

Baltimore generated consistent pressure during the first meeting while rushing four. Below, an example of their radar alignment getting to Roethlisberger:

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But in their later meeting, the radar alignment ‒ with a blitz ‒ doesn’t get home:

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The Ravens send five rushers to pressure Roethlisberger but he finds his running back, who picks up good yardage and a first down. These themes persisted in those final three quarters ‒ Baltimore blitzes failing to get to the quarterback and Pittsburgh picking up big plays as a result:

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Baltimore sends five, the blitz is picked up and Roethlisberger gets the ball out to Markus Wheaton for an easy 15-yard gain.

I expect Baltimore to send only four rushers at Roethlisberger on Saturday night. But Pittsburgh’s offensive line is a much more cohesive unit than the group the Ravens saw in Week 2, so they might feel the need to blitz to pressure Roethlisberger. Quite the conundrum for Baltimore.

Pittsburgh’s Running Game against Baltimore’s Defense

During their stretch run in December, the Steelers relied on the lead counter play and enjoyed great success with that design. They have used it against Baltimore with similar results, including this play from their Week 9 meeting:

Tight end Heath Miller blocks down on an inside linebacker, while right guard David DeCastro pulls and kicks out the outside linebacker:

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This creates a big hole for the running back (current Patriot LeGarrette Blount) to rip off a nice gain.

Le’Veon Bell ran for over 1,000 yards this season for the Steelers, but injured his knee in the week 17 victory over the Bengals and remains questionable for Saturday night. If he cannot play, Pittsburgh will rely on rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer, as well as recent signee Ben Tate. Harris is the more complete running back, while Archer is a rocket in cleats. The rookie from Kent State ran the fastest 40-yard dash at last year’s scouting combine (4.26 seconds) and carved out a role in Pittsburgh’s offense as a change-of-pace back:

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He lines up next to Roethlisberger and gets the football on the draw. Archer makes a nice cut at the line of scrimmage and manages a quick five-yard gain.

Prediction

Pittsburgh moves on to the divisional round behind their new and improved offensive line.

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 17

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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