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Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Matchups, prediction for huge AFC North rivalry game

Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens visit Ben Roethlisberger and the reeling Pittsburgh Steelers in a big-time divisional showdown.

The AFC North’s nastiest rivalry is back for its 55th edition Sunday when the 5-5-1 Pittsburgh Steelers host the 8-3 Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers are in a freefall, with two losses and a tie in their last three games. The Ravens, meanwhile, enter Week 13 as the AFC’s No. 1 seed at 8-3 but have the league’s fourth-hardest remaining strength of schedule. These teams will meet again in Week 18.

Baltimore Ravens offense vs. Pittsburgh Steelers defense

Greg Roman’s group is slumping big time. The Ravens over the last three weeks have scored 42 points, averaged 4.1 yards per play, and converted 35.6% of their third downs.

To be fair, the second of those three games was without Lamar Jackson, who missed Baltimore’s Week 11 win over the Bears due to an illness. But that doesn’t explain away last week’s stinker. Baltimore needed 77 plays to gain 303 yards and crossed the Browns’ 30 on just two of 13 drives last Sunday. The Ravens are 18th on the year in expected points added (EPA) per play (0.2) but 26th in the last three weeks (-0.1).

The good news for Baltimore? The Steel Curtain, this is not. Far from. Pittsburgh just allowed 82 points to the Chargers and Bengals in the last two weeks, giving up an egregious 903 yards and 58 first downs.

Those debacles have crushed the Steelers’ season-long rankings. Pittsburgh is now 25th in yards per play allowed (5.8) and 23rd in scoring defense (24.3 points per game). If that wasn’t bad enough, T.J. Watt has missed practice all week because of the league’s COVID-19 protocols, but will play Sunday.

Lamar Jackson vs. Steelers defense

Jackson’s 4-pick game against Cleveland was of course the worst start of his career. The only surprising part of his stat line was that his passer rating (46.5) and QBR (25.0) weren’t worse.

“I looked like a rookie,” Jackson said this week. Ball security has been a recurring concern for Jackson lately. He’s thrown 9 interceptions in his last five appearances. And if the past is prologue, Jackson’s struggles could continue.

In four career games against the Steelers, he’s completed 57.9% of his passes for 3 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and 6.7 yards per attempt. The last two quarterbacks to face the Steelers — Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow — fared far better than Jackson has historically. They combined to complete 50 of 65 attempts for 572 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Their combined passer rating? 110.5.

That inflated the Steelers’ season defensive passer rating to 97.9, which is 25th in football. Pittsburgh ranks 22nd in yards per pass (7.1) and 27th in interception rate (1.4%).

Advantage: Jackson

Ravens weapons vs. Steelers defensive backs

Jackson essentially throws to two players: wide receiver Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews. They have accounted for 181 of the Ravens’ 377 targets in 2021. Both have 60 catches, over 750 receiving yards, and 5 or more receiving touchdowns.

Rookie Rashod Bateman has 25 catches for 301 yards in six games and has overtaken Sammy Watkins as the Ravens’ No. 3 receiving option. Jackson is far and away Baltimore’s best ball carrier (123-707-2), but the Ravens use their running backs too. Devonta Freeman (4.3 yards per carry) has been way more efficient than Latavius Murray (3.4). Receiver Miles Boykin (finger), meanwhile, is unlikely to play.

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No Steelers player has more than 1 interception, and no Pittsburgh DB has more than 5 pass breakups. This is not a playmaking group.

The good news? They will probably have their best secondary playmaker back soon. But while Joe Haden returned to practice this week, his thigh injury is still bad enough that he’ll miss his third straight game. In Haden’s absence, James Pierre was torched for 120 yards and a touchdown on 9 targets in Week 12. Cameron Sutton has allowed 68.8% of passes thrown his way to be completed.

Advantage: Ravens

Ravens offensive line vs. Steelers front seven

Of the 16 Ravens who began the week on IR, Ronnie Stanley’s injury has probably been the most impactful. The former first-team All-Pro tackle has missed all but one game this year due to a significant ankle injury. That moved Alejandro Villanueva to the left side, and the results haven’t been pretty.

He’s allowed 7 sacks and committed six penalties in 11 games. Patrick Mekari has filled in at right tackle and has been solid. On balance, however, more is needed from a group that Football Outsiders ranks 30th in adjusted sack rate (8.5%) and 28th in adjusted line yards (3.8).

Only the Minnesota Vikings allow more yards per carry than the Steelers (4.82) — an almost unfathomable statistic given the team’s smash-mouth legacy. It’s hard to understate how important a healthy and active Watt is to the Steelers’ pass rush. He accounts for 41.2% of Pittsburgh’s sacks and 32.8% of the team’s QB hits. Alex Highsmith is a solid second option, but he’s simply not on Watt’s level. If the Steelers can’t stop the run or rush the passer, they’re in big trouble.

Advantage: Ravens

Pittsburgh Steelers offense vs. Baltimore Ravens defense

The Steelers scored 92 points in November, which isn’t terrible but isn’t exactly great when you consider 27 of those 92 points came in the fourth quarter against the Chargers — a game that Los Angeles actively tried to give away.

Pittsburgh was straight awful against Cincinnati, managing 10 points, 16 first downs, and 3.4 yards per carry while turning the ball over 3 times. On the year, the Steelers are 27th in yards per play (5.0), 22nd in scoring (20.4), and 24th in EPA per play (-0.04).

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The weird thing about the 2021 Ravens is that as their offense went south, their defense started figuring things out. Facing Jacoby Brissett/Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Fields/Andy Dalton, and a significantly diminished Baker Mayfield the last three weeks has certainly helped. But success is success, and the Ravens deserve credit for holding their last three opponents to a combined 45 points.

All that being said, the Ravens still rank 30th in yards per play allowed (6.0) and have forced the third-fewest turnovers (10). Nevertheless, they’re first in third-down defense (30.5%) and ninth in points allowed (21.8).

Ben Roethlisberger vs. Ravens defense

Roethlisberger and the Steelers have no chance if they let their confidence get wrecked by recent struggles. “Someone once said games like this are like bubble gum,” Roethlisberger said. “You chew them for a little bit, and then you spit them out.” But the reality is Big Ben’s game is as stale as Big Red after 10 minutes.

His touchdown rate (3.6%) and QBR (43.1) are the worst of his career, and he seems to struggle to make some of the most basic throws. The Steelers need Roethlisberger to find a bit of old magic.

Sunday will be Roethlisberger’s 26th appearance against the Ravens. Pittsburgh has won 15 of the previous 25, but the Ravens have picked him off 24 times and held him below his career averages in completion percentage (61.1% vs. Baltimore), yards per attempt (6.9), and passer rating (85.3).

But those were with far better defenses than what the Ravens have this year. Baltimore ranks last in pass defense (275.7 yards per game), 30th in yards per pass allowed (7.5), 29th in interception rate (1.2%), and 20th in EPA per dropback (0.1).

Advantage: Push

Steelers weapons vs. Ravens defensive backs

The Steelers ground game begins and ends with Najee Harris. He’s gotten 75.7% of the team’s carries, gained 73.9% of their rushing yards, and accounted for all but 2 of their touchdowns.

Pittsburgh is a bit more egalitarian with its passing game, but Diontae Johnson is the clear-cut No. 1. He’s amassed 809 receiving yards on 109 targets — and his next drop will be his first. Chase Claypool’s suggestion this week that the Steelers incorporate music into practice went over like a lead balloon. Wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud is available again after a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

As Marlon Humphrey has gone, so has the Ravens’ secondary. The two-time Pro Bowler has allowed 5 touchdowns and 15.1 yards per completion. Teammate Anthony Averett has been slightly better (54.4% completions against, 76.4 rating), but he still can be beaten. Backup cornerback Jimmy Smith missed last week’s game with a neck injury, but in truth, Tavon Young has long been ahead of him in the depth chart anyway. Neither starting safety (Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott) is great in coverage.

Advantage: Steelers

Steelers offensive line vs. Ravens defensive front

The line was a big concern entering the season, and it remains one all these weeks later. The Steelers are a bottom-five run-blocking line, according to Football Outsiders, and only three teams have a worse pass-blocking win rate: the Texans, Bengals, and Dolphins.

Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh ranks 29th in yards per carry (3.7). Making matters worse, the Steelers this week placed backup tackle Joe Haeg on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

For as much that’s changed for the Ravens this year, we can still count on them getting after the quarterback. They’re ninth in pass-rush win rate, and Tyus Bowser is a big reason why. He leads the team with 5.5 sacks and trails only Justin Houston in quarterback hits with 13. That strength should only get stronger with the return of Calais Campbell, who missed the Browns game with a concussion.

Advantage: Ravens

Betting line and game prediction

  • Spread: Ravens -4 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
  • Moneyline: Ravens -190, Steelers +160
  • Total: 44.5

Ravens vs. Steelers Prediction: Ravens 24, Steelers 10

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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