The Ravens clinched a playoff spot but are still pushing for a division title as they await the return of quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Steelers have won their last two and are clinging to playoff hopes of their own. Which team will have the advantage on New Year’s Day?
Ravens passing game vs. Steelers pass defense
The Ravens have won three of their last four without Lamar Jackson at quarterback despite ranking 28th in Football Outsiders’ pass DVOA over that span. Tyler Huntley did connect with newly signed wide receiver Sammy Watkins for a 40-yard gain and with tight end Mark Andrews for a 36-yard gain in the Ravens’ 17-9 win over the Falcons last weekend, but he has averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt overall with one touchdown pass (to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson against the Falcons) and two interceptions. He completed just eight of 12 passes for 88 yards in the Ravens’ Week 14 win over the Steelers and left to enter concussion protocol after taking a hard shot in the third quarter. Undrafted rookie Anthony Brown relieved him. The Ravens’ offensive line played well in Pittsburgh, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman opted for a power running attack to seal the victory.
The Steelers have played excellent defense in the second half of the season, thanks in part to the return of edge rusher T.J. Watt, who missed seven games because of a pectoral injury. Defensive tackle Cam Heyward (8 1/2 sacks, 18 quarterback hits) won AFC Defensive Player of the Week after finishing with two sacks and three tackles for loss in the Steelers’ Christmas Eve win over the Las Vegas Raiders. Minkah Fitzpatrick (five interceptions, 10 passes defended) is perhaps the league’s top safety. The Steelers rank fifth in blitz rate but just 28th in pressures per drop-back, so their pass rush has not been as fearsome as in past years. But they have not allowed an opposing quarterback to throw for more than 200 yards since their Week 11 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Steelers passing game vs. Ravens pass defense
Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith knocked rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett out of the Week 14 matchup with a hit in the first quarter. The Ravens picked off backup Mitch Trubisky three times, cutting short three drives that crossed into Baltimore territory. Though the Ravens rank fourth in the league with 24 takeaways, they can’t count on a repeat with Pickett back at quarterback for the Steelers. Though Pickett (6.1 yards per attempt, five touchdown passes, nine interceptions) has been far from brilliant, he has led an above-average pass offense over the second half of the season. He’s blessed with a trio of dangerous targets in wide receivers Diontae Johnson (82 catches, 809 yards) and George Pickens (14.9 yards per catch) and tight end Pat Freiermuth (60 catches, 696 yards). Pickens and Johnson combined for nine catches on 11 targets for 160 yards in the previous matchup with the Ravens. Smith and fellow linebacker Patrick Queen finished with a sack and an interception each in that game, while safety Marcus Williams ranged far for his first interception since returning from a wrist injury.
The Ravens beat the Falcons without cornerback Marcus Peters (calf) or defensive end Calais Campbell (knee), two pillars of their pass defense. They could again be without both against Pittsburgh. Brandon Stephens filled in for Peters against Atlanta, and coach John Harbaugh said he was pleased with the second-year cornerback’s performance. But the Ravens could not muster a consistent pass rush against Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder. They rank fourth in sacks despite ranking just 25th in pressures per drop-back, so their pass rushers have done a good job finishing off opportunities. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey forced a fumble against Atlanta and is headed for his third Pro Bowl.
Ravens running game vs. Steelers run defense
The Ravens dominated the Steelers on the ground in Week 14 with 215 yards on 42 carries. They showed how much more dangerous they would be with J.K. Dobbins (15 carries, 120 yards) and Gus Edwards (13 carries, 66 yards) reunited in the backfield, and that trend has continued over the past two weeks. Edwards was the star against the Falcons with 99 yards on 11 carries, including several clutch first-down conversions in the fourth quarter. The Ravens miss Jackson, who’s still their leading rusher, but their ground game has worked just fine with Huntley at the controls.
Despite their subpar outing against the Ravens, the Steelers are second in rush DVOA since Week 9 and have shut down several fine ground attacks. Heyward is the key to their interior defense, while linebacker Myles Jack is their top playmaker in the middle. Can the Ravens’ offensive line deliver another overpowering performance against this crew? That question could be the key to the game.
Steelers running game vs. Ravens run defense
The Steelers have run better than the Ravens in the second half of the season, according to DVOA. But you would not have known it in Week 14, when they managed just 65 yards on 20 carries against the league’s hottest run defense. Najee Harris (843 yards, six touchdowns) is Pittsburgh’s workhorse, with Jaylen Warren serving as an effective counterpoint. Pickett averages 5 yards per carry and cannot be left unattended.
The Ravens suffered through a relative down week against Atlanta’s prolific running attack, allowing 115 yards on 33 carries. But they have smothered opponents since they traded for Smith, who led them with 15 tackles against the Falcons. Though Campbell’s potential absence would be significant on the interior, defensive tackles Broderick Washington and Justin Madubuike have stepped up in their third seasons.
Ravens special teams vs. Steelers special teams
The Ravens rank fourth in special teams DVOA but just 24th since Week 9. Opponents have blocked Justin Tucker field goal attempts each of the last two weeks. Tucker has made 32 of 38 on the season, with all but one of his misses coming from 50 yards or beyond. Against the Falcons, James Proche II fielded punts and Justice Hill kickoffs in place of injured Pro Bowl selection Devin Duvernay.
The Steelers rank 29th in special teams DVOA. Veteran kicker Chris Boswell missed two field goal attempts in their win over the Raiders and has made just 15 of 22 on the season. Kickoff returner Steven Simms (25.3 yards per return) has been the only real bright spot for Pittsburgh.
Ravens intangibles vs. Steelers intangibles
Harbaugh and his Steelers counterpart, Mike Tomlin, usually find ways to get their teams in the playoff mix, and we’re seeing more of the same this season. The Ravens are in but still striving for an AFC North title as they wait for Jackson. Players and coaches have spoken optimistically about how much room they have to improve before the start of the playoffs.
The Steelers have won four of their past five to mount a late playoff push, rebuilding their identity around defense and running after almost two decades of Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. They will have to beat the Ravens to stay alive.
There’s not much separating these teams. We know the game will be close. We know it will be low scoring. The Ravens ran at will in Pittsburgh and picked off Trubisky three times. They can’t count on repeating the same formula against a rival that’s fighting to stay alive. Steelers 19, Ravens 16
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