Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens: Week 9 Positional Breakdown
By: Dakota Arturo
The Pittsburgh Steelers followed up on last week’s breakout performance with a 43-23 thumping of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night, improving to 6-3. QB Ben Roethlisberger, once again, threw for 6 TD’s en route to setting an NFL record for TD’s in a 2-week span (12). Joe Flacco’s early 35-yard TD pass to Torrey Smith was the only score of the 1st quarter, while Pittsburgh failed to convert a 1st down on their first three drives. At the commencement of the 2nd quarter, Ravens LB Courtney Upshaw took a cheap shot at Ben Roethlisberger, resulting in a 15-yard penalty, and turning the tides of the game. Minutes later Roethlisberger connected with RB LeVeon Bell on a 5-yard TD pass, and the Steelers’ offense took off thereafter. The game was as physical, if not more physical, as the Steelers-Ravens games of recent memory with a multitude of near ejections and cheap shots taken by both sides, mostly Baltimore though.
QB Grade: A
For the second consecutive week, Ben Roethlisberger (25/37, 340yds, 6TD, 0INT) threw 6 TD’s, thus breaking the NFL record for TD passes in a 2-week span (12). It is difficult to keep Roethlisberger from scoring an A+, but initial struggles held him back from that perfect grade. Pittsburgh’s first three drives of the game resulted in zero, yes zero, 1st downs, in part due to Roethlisberger’s struggles. He had a couple of short completions, but overthrew WR Martavis Bryant on a short in-route, and under-threw Antonio Brown on the same designed route, both nearly resulting in interceptions. Still, after Ben’s struggles in the 1st quarter, he went on to complete 20 of 30 pass attempts for 303 yards and an astounding 6 TD’s. What made this weeks performance as impressive as the previous one was the fact that Ben did it while facing constant pressure. In fact, on the season, Roethlisberger has competed 69% of his passes while under pressure, a number that is 7.6% better than any other NFL QB. Safe to say that he’s had practice over the past five years. Last week, Pittsburgh’s offensive line held the Colts to the tune of 0 sacks and just 1 QB hit, while this week Baltimore knocked him down 8 times and picked up 3 sacks. Ben’s quick release when facing pressure was evident on his 54-yard TD strike to Antonio Brown in the 4th quarter. Brown ran a deep out route and Roethlisberger hit him perfectly in stride, with Brown doing the rest of the work. Overall, outside of initial struggles and a late fumble (his 6th of the season), Ben Roethlisberger was near perfect. Averaging out Roethlisberger’s stats from the past 3 games puts him at an impressive 29/40, 376 yards, 4.7TD, 0INT, with a 133.6 QB rating. Amazing. His season totals are pretty damn good too. Among NFL QB’s he ranks 2nd in completion% (68.3%), 2nd in yards (2720), T-2nd in TD’s (22), 3rd in QB Rating (110.6), 4th in YPG (302), and T-3rd in INT (3). If last week’s 522 yard performance didn’t put him in the MVP picture, he sure as hell has emerged now.
RB Grade: C+
For the first time all season, LaGarrett Blount saw as many carries as LeVeon Bell (10 a piece). Neither of them did much with their workloads as the Ravens front-7 held Blount and Bell to 23 and 20 yards respectively. So much of what makes LeVeon Bell effective on the ground is his patience and ability to seek out a hole and hit it. This only works when Pittsburgh’s offensive line gets a 1-2 yard push that enables Bell to “dance around” before that hole opens up. The offensive line never got that push on Sunday. Baltimore clearly game planned to stack the box and hold Pittsburgh’s running game in check, and it worked. In fact, Ravens rookie 1st round pick ILB CJ Moseley seemed to be in charge of mirroring Bell throughout the game, and covering him in passing situations. Without the push from the offensive line, LaGarrett Blount became a better option; one that could put his head down and pick up tough yardage. Blount did just that early on, picking up 3 first downs in the 1st half, but struggled beyond that point. What salvaged the backs’ grade from complete failure was LeVeon Bell’s ability to influence the game in other ways, as we’ve seen so often. Bell (5 catches, 38 yards, 1TD) brought in Pittsburgh’s first TD of the game, lining up in the slot and making an excellent turn-around catch over Ravens’ CJ Moseley from 5 yards out. Additionally, on the final play of the 3rd quarter, Baltimore dialed up an all out blitz, giving Big Ben maybe 2 second to get rid of the ball. Ben dumped the ball of to Bell, standing just beyond the line of scrimmage, who made an outstanding shoestring catch, gaining 10 yards and converting a huge 3rd down play. That catch set up Antonio Brown’s 54-yard TD reception, just plays later, which put the game out of reach. LeVeon also provided value outside of running the ball via his pass blocking. On numerous occasions you could see him picking up a stunting linebacker and holding his block long enough for Ben to get rid of the ball. So while Pittsburgh was ineffective in their ground game, LeVeon Bell still brought value to the position group through his receiving abilities and pass blocking.
WR Grade: A+
Outside of a Markus Wheaton 2nd and 13 drop in the 3rd quarter, there isn’t much to fault from this WR corps. Starting with Antonio Brown (11-144-1), boy is this young man unbelievable. Brown got the offense rolling by converting their opening 1st down. Ben under-threw him on a curl route, but Brown was able to come back to the ball and convert the 1st down. The other Brown reception that stood out to me, for obvious reasons, was his 54-yard TD reception. Brown ran a post route and got down field rather quickly where Ben released the ball within two seconds and hit Brown in perfect stride. Brown beat Ravens CB Chykie Brown, then changed direction, stiff-armed Chykie Brown, advanced downfield where he stiff-armed S Will Hill, next proceeding to avoid tackles from CB’s LaDarius Webb and Jimmy Smith before jogging the last 20 yards into the endzone. The play helps to illustrate exactly why Antonio Brown is one of the NFL’s best WR’s. In fact, last week I said he was a top-3 WR in the league, and after this performance I’m willing to bump him to the top-2, behind a health Calvin Johnson. Seriously, who else would you take over him? AJ Green? Julio Jones? Demaryius Thomas? Dez Bryant? All four of them are your stereotypical 6’0+ #1 WR’s, but none of them tote the open field ability that makes Brown so unbelievable. AB now ranks, among NFL WR’s, 1st in receptions (71), 1st in targets (103), 1st in receiving yards (996), T-2nd in TD’s (8), 3rd in YAC (300), and 1st in 1st downs (44). Antonio Brown has certainly placed himself in the NFL MVP conversation alongside teammate Ben Roethlisberger.
Though I could write about Antonio Brown for pages, other WR’s contributed to this big win. Rookie 4th rounder Martavis Bryant (3-44-2) hauled in at least 1 TD reception for the 3rd consecutive game, and now has 5 TD’s on the season to go along with his 10 receptions. Bryant’s route running ability, or lack of it, was one aspect that dropped him to the 4th round in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he’s done more than enough to show improvements in that area of work. On his 19-yard TD reception that put Pittsburgh up 14-7, he perfectly executed a deep out route where Big Ben was able to find him wide open in the left corner of the endzone. Martavis converted on another TD in the 4th quarter, after Ravens safety Matt Elam was unable to jam him at the line of scrimmage, thus allowing Bryant to slant over the middle, find room at the edge of the endzone, and haul in the TD in double coverage. Skeptics will continue to question his hands, but he had no problem making that catch in traffic. The emergence of Martavis Bryant has also opened the door for 2nd year WR Markus Wheaton (2-62-1). Wheaton, who many saw as Pittsburgh’s next reliable deep threat, finally showed off those abilities right before half time. Wheaton ran a fly, and was able to blow right by star CB LaDarius Webb, hauling in the perfectly thrown deep ball and dancing into the endzone for a 47-yard TD. Beyond the up and coming core of Brown, Bryant, and Wheaton sit Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Moore had 1 catch for 4 yards and Heyward-Bey was unable to show up in the stat column, but these two veterans still provide solid depth, and make up, arguably, the best #4/#5 WR combination in the NFL (if anyone is keeping track of that). Regardless, Martavis Bryant’s emergence has brought the best out of this offense. It keeps pressure off of Markus Wheaton, who was clearly unfit for the #2 WR role, and stops teams from putting 2-3 defenders on Antonio Brown. What we’re starting to see here is the makings of a future dynamic WR core in Pittsburgh.
TE Grade: A-
Fresh off of Heath Miller’s first 100-yard receiving game of the season, he failed to replicate those results. Miller ended up hauling in just 1 reception for 14 yards. Most of this is due to the fact that Baltimore constantly dialed up blitzes and packed the box in hopes of stopping the run game, thus relegating Miller to mostly blocking duties. Though some will disagree, including those over at Steelers Depot, I though Heath did a fine job in pass protection. Still, the A- grade was earned in large part from a career game from unlikely hero Matt Spaeth. Spaeth not only converted on a botched XP 2-point conversion, but also caught a 33-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger in the closing moments of the game. On the 4th and 2 play, Spaeth initially had pass-blocking duties, but broke downfield into open space where he made a fantastic reaching grab and stumbled into the endzone for the TD. Even without these feats, Spaeth had himself one hell of a game in pass-blocking duties. With the constant pressure the Ravens were applying, Speath saw a season high 42% of offensive snaps, mostly as an extra blocker. On numerous occasions he was able to fend off Terrell Suggs in one-on-one pass blocking duties. PFF.com even graded out his performance at +2.2, a score that bested that of Ben Roethlisberger. Matt Spaeth may not get much attention from casual fans for the role he plays, but his value was on full display on Sunday against Baltimore.
OL Grade: B-
As mentioned earlier, Ben Roethlisberger was under pressure all day long, to the tune of 8 QB hits and 3 sacks. The interior of the line was unable to push around Baltimore’s defensive line, as they’ve done all season, thus rendering the run game useless. The 55 rushing yards Pittsburgh accumulated on the ground were a season low due to their inability to penetrate the defensive line. The pass protection was clearly good enough for Big Ben to put up the numbers he did, but was still a step in the wrong direction from last week’s domination of Indianapolis’ defensive front. Marcus Gilbert struggled on numerous occasions, failing to hold his blocks on three consecutive pass plays in the 2nd quarter, all of which resulted in sacks. Kelvin Beachum had his struggles too, especially during that 3-sack stretch, but had his bright spots, namely when he held Terrell Suggs in place on Martavis Bryant’s first TD reception of the game. Overall, Beachum had a pretty descent game considering he was matched up with Terrell Suggs. Ramon Foster, on the other hand, was present in my notes multiple times under “terrible missed block”. PFF saw the same thing, grading his performance at a lowly -4.8 for the game. Overall, the offensive line had their struggles, but one must note that they were facing one of the leagues best front-sevens in the Ravens.
DL Grade: B+
The Steelers defensive line was finally at full health with the return of NT Steve McLendon from a shoulder injury. The result was a Ravens run game that struggled to establish consistency, totaling just 63 yards on 18 rushes (3.5 average). Though McLendon only played 51% of defensive snaps, he made his presence known by dominating Ravens C Jeremy Zuttah all night long. As McLendon returns to full health, he should see an increase in snaps at the expense of Cam Thomas. Cam Heyward, too, had himself a solid night, pulling in an outstanding +4.1 grade from PFF. He totaled 1 TFL and 1 QB hit, but provided constant pressure on Joe Flacco. Rookie 2nd round DE Stephon Tuitt only saw 17 snaps, down from 24 last week, but made the most of it. On consecutive plays in the 1st quarter, Tuitt nearly recorded a sack on a Joe Flacco naked bootleg, forcing him to throw the ball away, then bull-rushed Baltimore T Ricky Wagner right into Joe Flacco on a play that resulted in a James Harrison sack. Finally, on Arthur Moats sack right before halftime, Tuitt drove his lineman into the backfield and almost registered the sack himself. As Tuitt continues to learn the playbook, he should see his snaps increase. Regardless, with the return of Steve McLendon, Pittsburgh has a plethora of effective defensive lineman in McLendon, Heyward, Tuitt, and Kiesel.
LB Grade: A-
James Harrison added 2 sacks to the stat column for the second consecutive week, and now finds himself atop the Steelers’ sack leaderboard with four. Harrison finished with an astounding 7 tackles to go along with 2 sacks, 2 TFL, and 4 QB hits, good for his best performance of the season, by far. Baltimore seemingly focused more of their attention on keeping OLB Jason Worilds out of the backfield, thus opening up lanes for Harrison. Whether Harrison was getting after the QB around the edge by using his height advantage and effective dip move, or curling behind the DE on his side (usually Brett Kiesel) and stunting up the middle, he was constantly in the face of Joe Flacco. Harrison also looked solid in run defending duties. Overall, the 10-15 pounds Harrison has dropped since joining the team have increased his playing time at the expense of OLB Arthur Moats, and helped him regain the ability he boasted in his prime. Lawrence Timmons continues to captain the defense at a high clip, totaling a team high 11 tackles to go along with 1 sack, 1 TFL, and 2 QB Hits. Timmons now ranks 5th in the NFL with 78 tackles. Timmons missed his lane on a Justin Forsett 12-yard run early on, but did a fine job defending the run beyond that point. Jason Worilds wasn’t able to build on last weeks performance, picking up 3 tackles and just 1 QB hurry. Worilds also missed his assignment multiple times in pass coverage, but still managed to intercept Joe Flacco in the 2nd quarter. Still, the interception should be credited to the pressure James Harrison and Stephon Tuitt applied, and the horrendous throw Flacco unleashed. Seriously, that throw was awful. Outside of these key players, Arthur Moats picked up a sack, and ILB Sean Spence played in 40 snaps after ILB Ryan Shazier injured his ankle, up from just 1 last week. Playing time between backup ILB’s Sean Spence and Vince Williams has been very inconsistent, but both have provided a spark while Shazier nurses injuries.
CB/S Grade: B+
Sure Joe Flacco threw for 303 yards on the day, but 102 of those yards came in junk time late in the 4th quarter when Pittsburgh held a 36-17 lead. CB William Gay finished with 5 tackles and continues to quietly play at a pro bowl level. Antwon Blake, who sealed last weeks win with a late interception of Andrew Luck, saw his first significant playing time of the season (51% of snaps) and made the most of it. In fact, PFF graded his performance out as a +2.3, good for 3rd among Steelers defenders. Lawrence Timmons’ sole sack will go down as a coverage sack, in large part because of the excellent coverage William Gay and Antwon Blake provided on their respective receivers. On one of James Harrison’s QB hits, Joe Flacco lofted the ball deep down field into the endzone, as we’ve seen so many times, where Antwon Blake had single coverage on Torrey Smith. Blake was able to turn around, locate the ball, and keep Smith from making the reception. Later on, Joe Flacco hit Torrey Smith in stride, on a quick slant, but Blake identified the route, timed the hit on Smith perfectly, and jarred the ball loose. The only complaint one may have regarding Blake’s performance came from a pass interference call he drew on a Torrey Smith quick slant in the endzone, but the coverage was excellent and the call was questionable. Cortez Allen saw only one snap the entire game (the same treatment Ike Taylor received during his benching in 2006), but Antwon Blake’s emergence will allow the coaching staff to sort out whatever issues Allen is dealing with. The biggest fault that can be attributed to the CB group stemmed from Brice McCain’s failed coverage on Torrey Smith’s 35-yard TD reception, the games first score. McCain was stuck on an island with Smith, and held his coverage on the fly route, but failed to make a play on the ball, thus resulting in the TD. Overall, McCain had an average game in coverage, but may lose snaps to Antwon Blake over the coming weeks.
From the safety group, Mike Mitchell accumulated 4 tackles, and had maybe his best game in pass coverage. As Mitchell continues to learn the defense, his performance should improve. Troy Polamalu went down in the 2nd quarter with an apparent knee injury, where veteran Will Allen filled in thereafter. Allen ended up seeing 56% of defensive snaps and did a fine job with his time. Still, Allen looked slow in the preseason, and barely made the active roster, so significant playing time isn’t something you should hope to see with Polamalu out. Fans are wondering why Mike Tomlin continues to play Will Allen over 2nd year S Shamarko Thomas, but those questions remain unanswered. With Polamalu ruled out for Pittsburgh’s upcoming matchup with the Jets, one would assume that Thomas and S Robert Golden see at least limited playing time in place of the aging Allen.
ST Grade: D
Every aspect of Pittsburgh’s special teams performance was dreadful on Sunday. LaGarrett Blount was only able to bring one kickoff out of the endzone, which resulted in a 29-yard gain. That return sadly went down as the longest on the season for Pittsburgh. On kickoffs, Shaun Suisham wasted a 15-yard penalty with an awful squib kick directly to Ravens FB Kyle Juszczyk that set Baltimore up with good field position. No reason why he shouldn’t have just booted it out of the endzone. In addition to that, Pittsburgh gave up a 108-yard TD return to Jacoby Jones who went untouched. William Gay, Darius Heyward-Bey, and Antwon Blake weren’t able to detach from their block, thus opening up tons of space for the explosive Jones. Brad Wing struggled in punt duties, averaging just 41.8 yards per punt, none of which pinned Baltimore inside the 20-yard line. With Pittsburgh driving midway through the 3rd quarter, up 22-10, they elected to punt from Baltimore’s 47-yard line. Brad Wing flubbed a 27-yard punt that was fair caught by Jacoby Jones at the 20-yard line. As an “inside the 20” specialist, Wing has to at least attempt to down Baltimore deep inside their territory. Finally, Brad Wing botched a PAT hold after Pittsburgh’s third TD that luckily resulted in a 2-point conversion to Matt Spaeth. Though Mike Tomlin was smiling on the sidelines (as was I), Wing cannot expect the same result if he botches another snap. Finally, on hands team (onside kick recovery team), Will Johnson attempted to recover an onside kick late in the 4th quarter that had only traveled ~6 yards. The ball took an odd hop, bounced off his helmet, and luckily rolled out of bounce before Baltimore had a chance to recover it. Johnson should have let the ball travel beyond him while engaging a Ravens player.
Hero: QB Ben Roethlisberger/OLB James Harrison
Goat: G Ramon Foster
At 6-3, Pittsburgh sits just percentage points behind AFC North division leader Cincinnati, while sliding into the first wildcard slot as the 5 seed. The Steelers travel to East Rutherford, NJ next Sunday afternoon where they’ll be taking on the lowly 1-8 New York Jets. Though the Jets have been awful this season, they’ve played contenders very closely in losses, namely Denver, New England, Detroit, and Green Bay. The official Vegas line opens up at -4.5 in favor of Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh needs to prove that they can establish continued success on the road where they’ve played .500 ball this season. LB Ryan Shazier and S Troy Polamalu have already been ruled out for the contest.
From a fans standpoint, this is the most upbeat I’ve felt about a Steelers team since the 2011 AFC wild card game. With CB Ike Taylor and OLB Jarvis Jones due to return from injury in the coming weeks, the Steelers may be shaping itself to be one of the better defensive units in the NFL over the final 8 weeks. After New England’s dominant performance over the once invincible Denver Broncos this past week the AFC is wide open, and Pittsburgh looks to be one of the few legitimate Super Bowl contenders to come out of the AFC.