All-22: Why did the Steelers beat the Ravens?

On Sunday, October 20, the Baltimore Ravens took an unfortunate journey to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. They were defeated by the Steelers, 19-16. Why did the Steelers win? Let’s look at some key stats along with some critical insights from the All-22 Film available via NFL Game Rewind (thanks NFL!).

1. Drives

Baltimore only had seven possessions on Sunday, the smallest number of possessions they have had all season.

Opponent

Possessions

Denver

17

Cleveland

13

Houston

8 (not including the Smith TAINT)

Buffalo

17

Miami

15

Green Bay

14

Pittsburgh

7

4 of the 7 Baltimore possessions resulted in points (Pittsburgh held Baltimore to 3 field goals). By my count, Pittsburgh called 28 pass plays (23 pass attempts, 3 sacks, 2 QB runs), compared with 26 run plays. (For those scoring at home, that’s 51.8% pass plays.) This is noticeably below league average with regard to pass/run differential. Why did that happen?

2. Pittsburgh’s Running Success

Pittsburgh finished the game with 28 rushes (excluding Roethlisberger’s kneel down at the end of the first half). They ran 14 times on first down for 75 yards – an average of 5.04yards/carry. 9 of the 14 carries resulted in a gain of 5 yards or more – meaning that Pittsburgh was able to generate a 2nd down with less than 6 yards to gain on 64% of their 1st down running plays.

Pittsburgh ran 9 times on 2nd down for 33 yards (3.67 yards/carry). Only 2 of these resulted in 1st downs, but 5 resulted in a 3rd and 2 or less (though it should be noted that 3 of these were in situations of 2nd and 5 or less).

Pittsburgh ran 5 times and 3rd down, gaining 35 yards. However, 19 of these yards came on one 3rd quarter Roethlisberger scramble. The other 4 gained 16 yards, a slightly more respectable 4.0 yards/carry. Unfortunately, 4 of the 5 carries gained a first down and the one that didn’t was a 3-yard Bell run on 3rd & 15.

Pittsburgh was very successful in running the football – a success rate of 71.4% (20/28).

3. Whither the Deep Pass?

Pittsburgh accentuated their ground success with a highly effective short passing game. While Roethlisberger completed 2/5 deep passes for 36 yards, he completed 15/18 short passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. By comparison, Joe Flacco completed 1/5 deep passes – the lone completion a 41 yarder to Torrey Smith. However, he completed 23/29 short passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. Both defenses were content throughout the course of the game to sit back and limit the efficacy of the speedy receivers (Smith and Jones, Brown and Sanders) while allowing the opposing quarterback to complete short passes nearly at will. Pittsburgh’s longest plays of the game were 19 yards (pass to Moye, pass to Cotchery, and a Roethlisberger run), while Baltimore had only 2 plays longer than 20 yards (the 41 yarder to Smith and a 22 yard pass to Tandon Doss). By comparison, Baltimore came into the game with 29 plays of 20+ yards (nearly 5/game). Pittsburgh had 26 such plays. Obviously, the defenses are to be commended for limiting the opposition’s scoring.

4. Mistakes and Luck

In any game decided by such a small margin, the odd bounce can prove vital to the outcome of the game. With 8:43 remaining in the first quarter, Ben Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass to Will Johnson. Johnson is not a key component of the Pittsburgh offense: he has appeared in 5 games, collecting 3 catches for 7 yards, and rushing exactly 0 times. Why is this pass significant? First, because it occurred during a drive in which Pittsburgh scored a touchdown – their only touchdown of the game. Second, because the pass should’ve been intercepted. Third, Roethlisberger narrowly avoids a sack. And fourth, because it is one of the funniest looking passes that I’ve ever seen – reminiscent of Brandon Weeden…or worse.

Pittsburgh begins by motioning 84-A. Brown from the strong side to the weak side. 26-L. Bell is lined up in the backfield. The Steelers have 6 offensive linemen flanked by a tight end and a fullback. Antonio Brown is on the edge of the formation – standing on the right hash mark at the start of the play. The 6 linemen run a zone blocking scheme pushing to the left side (strong side). 83-H. Miller runs a dig route while everyone goes out on the weak side at varying levels. On the snap, Roethlisberger, initially goes left, then circles around to the right.

Image

Terrell Suggs blitzes from the weak side. No offensive lineman touches him and 26-L. Bell chooses to run past him, leaving Suggs to do what he does best – sack the quarterback. Roethlisberger eludes Suggs for long enough to be able to throw a sidearm rainbow that 53-J. McClain should have intercepted. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the pass eludes him and is nearly caught by the fullback. An interception would have given Baltimore the ball around their own 25, while a sack would’ve added about 2 yards to the 2nd & 10 resulting from the incompletion. McClain ought to be forgiven for taking such a poor route to catch the ball given the strange route of the ball, especially given that this game was his first of the season.

ImageImage

Joe Flacco made two spectacular throws in the second half, but he cost his team a touchdown (and, in fact, any points whatsoever) with a critical error in the early 3rd quarter. Trailing 10-6, Baltimore lined up on a 3rd & 12 from the Steeler 43. Baltimore lines up in the shotgun. Torrey Smith is wide to the weak side, Jacoby Jones is wide to the strong side, Tandon Doss and Dallas Clark line up between Jones and Eugene Monroe. 8 Steelers line up on the defensive line, 6 of whom end up rushing the quarterback. 24-I. Taylor is in press coverage on Smith. Doss and Clark draw a defender each, while Jones draws single coverage from 22-W. Gay. Ryan Clark does not drop deep into coverage to help out on Smith or Jones and is completely out of position to give assistance on Doss or Clark, both of whom run variations on out routes. Flacco throws to Jones, but his pass is either poorly timed or off target, and Gay is able to catch up and deflect the pass away, setting up a punt.

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There are many things that Joe Flacco does well and the mistakes the he makes are often overstated by the media and the fan base at large, not to mention opposing fans. That being said, one of Flacco’s biggest strengths is his ability to deliver powerfully thrown balls down the field. Jacoby Jones beat William Gay by over 2 yards. There are 120 million reasons that Flacco needs to complete that pass, not to mention the fact that this is a rivalry game on the road against a struggling team, and further ignoring that the Ravens are struggling and need to put together some wins in a hurry if they want to play football in January of 2014.

I will say only a few words about the play of the offensive line. Marshall Yanda deserves commendation for his efforts. The rest of the line does not: I have confidence that Eugene Monroe has the potential to be the left tackle that Baltimore needs him to be. I’m not sure that the same can be said of Gradkowski, Osemele, and Oher (relative to their individual positions), but each has moments of competence. What concerns me is the regularity with which each of these three is either out of position, doubling up on a defender while another has a free shot at Flacco, Rice, or Pierce, or just seems completely unsure of what to do on a particular play once the ball is snapped (I’m looking straight at you, Michael Oher). Zone blocking is difficult, but this is the National Football League, and the job that the line is doing is insufficient to the cause.

Let us close with hapy news: first, week 8 is a bye week – hopefully a good opportunity to stabilize the offensive line, improve the timing in the passing game, figure out what to do with the running game, make some fixes on defense, and get healthy. Secondly, the remaining road games are Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Cincinnati. All of these are winnable games, and Baltimore should win at least 3. The 5 home games are Cincinnati, the Jets, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and New England. Again, all winnable games. Baltimore needs to win at least 7 of the last 9 games to make the playoffs, and even that might not be sufficient. That said, 7-8 wins in the last 9 is not out of reach, nor is it as difficult as it might seem.

All stats are thanks to pro-football-reference.com unless otherwise noted. Images are thanks to NFL Game Rewind and my ability to Print Screen on my laptop.

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