There was 1:17 left in the first half as the Steeler defense deployed to defend a third-and-six. The offense they were defending was back on its own 27.
Secure in the belief that a team facing third-and-6 with just 1:17 left in the half and 73 yards to cover would be throwing the ball, they employed seven defensive backs, leaving only two defensive linemen (Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt) and their two pass rushing outside linebackers (Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt) to apply the pressure. The linebackers would come on speed rushes, while the linemen would run a twist. The secondary would play cover-3, while providing a little extra attention to the more concerning receivers.
The Steelers came into the game leading all of football in sacks (26) and sack percentage. They were corralling opposing quarterbacks on a remarkable 11.4% of their drop-backs. This kind of known passing situation played decidedly to their strength.
There was just one teensy problem with all of this. The team that they were playing was the Baltimore Ravens. This just in, you have to play the Ravens differently than you play every other team.
Nobody runs the ball in this situation. But in Baltimore, details like down-and-distance, position on the field and time left to halftime matter little to them. Baltimore ran the ball anyway.
Left guard and tackle Bradley Bozeman and Orlando Brown Jr. both pulled to the right. Quarterback Lamar Jackson feinted a handoff to J.K. Dobbins (which slowed no one). Bozeman picked off Watt. Right tackle D.J. Fluker rushed into the void that Tuitt left as part of his stunt and met the other tackle – Heyward – as he was coming from the other side. Brown only had to push safety Terrell Edmunds to the ground to complete a rather gaping hole. After the play fake, Jackson darted into the void, earning 8 yards before the pursuit caught up with him.
Leading 14-7, Baltimore began their final drive of the first half on their own 8 yard line with just 3:44 left. Plenty of time to run the ball. Their ensuing drive consumed 15 plays – 8 of them runs. Nobody does this. Nobody but Baltimore.
No team in the NFL embodies the neo-Neanderthal mentality like the Ravens (my use of the term Neanderthal is explained and defended here). Some teams run the ball as a kind of changeup, hoping to maybe pick up a couple of yards while giving the other team’s pass rush something to think about. Many other teams understand that a healthy running game provides balance that augments the passing attack.
In Baltimore, their reason for getting up in the morning is to run the football down your throat. Baltimore embraces the physicality of running the football, the thrill of imposing their will on an opponent – even an elite defensive opponent like the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh entered the contest sporting gaudy defensive numbers. They were number one overall and number two against the run, holding opponents to just 68.8 rushing yards per game and only 3.4 yards per attempt.
The Ravens nearly tripled that number in just the first half. Over the course of an entire game, only one team had previously managed 100 rushing yards against them. In Week Two, Denver dented them for 104 rushing yards. Even top running teams like Cleveland (75 yards) and Tennessee (82 yards) couldn’t move the stout Steeler run defense.
The Ravens thumped them for 179 yards on 28 carries (6.4 yards per). And that was just the first half.
By the time the game was over, the running Ravens had stung the Steelers to the tune of 265 rushing yards on 47 carries. It’s the kind of output that can’t help but catch the attention of teams around the league – not to mention the fans at home.
The Steelers have a little less than four weeks to figure things out, as they get a rematch with this feared running attack on Thanksgiving evening. Here are a few things they might want to look at more closely the next time these two teams get together.
Deadly on the Edges
As you might expect, Baltimore brings the physical. When you play them, you should expect to have the interior of your line repeatedly challenged. In fact, two of the very best players on the field last Saturday were Baltimore reserve linemen Fluker and Patrick Mekari. When starting right guard Tyre Phillips and left tackle Ronnie Staley left early with injuries, coach John Harbaugh reshuffled his line, pulling right tackle Brown over to left tackle and inserting Mekari and Fluker into right guard and tackle, respectively.
They then ran predominantly to the right side. For their part, the Raven backup players pushed around the Steeler defensive linemen about as well as the starters would have done.
But as tough and nasty as things were on the interior of the defense, the Ravens are positively deadly on the edges. If it’s true that they embrace the physicality of the running game, it’s also true that they embrace the finesse of it. If it’s true that their runners are tough, tackle-breaking runners, it’s also true that they have speed to burn and elusiveness that is Halloween scary.
During Pittsburgh’s long defensive afternoon, Baltimore managed to get outside on them 26 times – those runs picking up 188 yards (7.2) per.
Baltimore has a handful of reliable plays that they use to get outside. They get great mileage out of the zone read play. This worked better than it should have against the Steelers because it takes advantage of aggressive edge rushers. Gus Edwards’ 28 yard run early in the second quarter took advantage of Watt and his penchant for playing on the other side of the line.
On the other side, Dupree bit frequently on the zone read, with Jackson picking up significant yardage running around him.
Late in the game, they broke out the straight option play. Jackson ran it with Dobbins a couple of times to the left (gaining 7 and 9 yards) and once to the right for 15 yards.
Harbaugh’s running game is raised almost to an art form – excellently designed and wonderfully executed, it is designed to get scary quick runners on the outside where they can cause all kinds of havoc.
A Couple of Keyes
Against most offenses, you can play the running game on the way to the quarterback. Against Baltimore, you always have to play the run first. So pass rushing ends have to keep contain.
Number two: Keep a wary eye on Ricard and Boyle.
The casual observer who keeps his eyes on Jackson probably has little idea of how important Patrick Ricard and Nick Boyle are to the smooth operation of Harbaugh’s running game. These two mobile offensive linemen are absolutely key to getting the runner to the outside. I would guess about 90% of the time you see a Raven streaking up the sideline, you will find that Boyle has led around the corner and thrown the key block. The issue here is that Boyle is usually a mismatch against most linebackers – much less defensive backs – that try to deny the edge.
Against Baltimore, I would be tempted to play five down linemen, with the edge linemen keeping a particular eye out for Boyle whenever he tries to open up the corner. The more traffic you can keep out there, the better your chance to contain this outside running game.
Finally, the thing I see over and over with Baltimore’s outside running game is the absence of the corner back.
With 7:29 left in the game, Baltimore was driving to what they hoped would be the game-winning touchdown. They had first-and-ten on their own 25 and ran the option to the left side.
Penetration from Dupree forced the pitch to Dobbins who headed for the sideline. In hot pursuit was Vince Williams, who had leapt over Boyle’s attempted block. But Dobbins still beat him around the corner and picked up 7 yards because that’s how far downfield Devin Duvernay had pushed corner back Steven Nelson. If Nelson had held the line of scrimmage, he could have turned Dobbins back inside where Williams could get him.
None of the Raven wide receivers are particularly physical – nor are they outstanding blockers. But they are all willing and feisty competitors out there. The way it usually works is that the receiver takes off as though running a deep route. The corner keeps backing up to stay on top of the route. Then, when the play turns out to be a run instead, the receiver is several yards downfield in between the runner and the defensive back and only needs to chicken fight with him for a few seconds to achieve his desired result.
If, on the other hand, the defensive back would play under the receiver (remembering that most of Jackson’s throws require the receiver to come back for the ball, anyway), he will be much better positioned to come up and deny the edge – and might even be better positioned to defend the pass.
These are only a few ideas of things that might be adjusted by any defense tasked with slowing this running game. No guarantees are given as to their effectiveness.
The principle point, though, is that you have to defend the Ravens differently. They don’t play football like everyone else.
And the Steelers?
For the game, Pittsburgh was out-rushed 265 to 48. In total yardage, it was Baltimore 457 to 221. But it was Pittsburgh who won the contest, 28-24 (gamebook) (summary). In spite of their dominance on the ground, Baltimore’s intermittent passing woes undid them. This time four turnovers from Jackson (and there was almost a fifth) cost them the game.
For all that they were pushed around a good deal on Saturday, Pittsburgh made the plays that they needed to make. They, at 7-0, are football’s last undefeated team.
But if Baltimore chalks them up for another 265 rushing yards on Thanksgiving, that status could be very much in jeopardy.