RAVENS // STEELERS OVERVIEW
This division matchup has been given an Over/Under of 50.5, with Vegas showing more faith in the offense of the Steelers than in the defense of the Ravens. With Jimmy Smith set to miss one more game and the Steelers’ offense operating at such a high level, this is reasonable. The Steelers scored 26 points in this matchup the first time around last year (a comfortable 26-9 win), and they won 39-38 at home later in the year. With the Ravens’ offense improving quite a bit since last year and the Steelers’ defense taking a couple steps back, we should be in for some fun on Sunday night.
RAVENS PASS OFFENSE
Joe Flacco has had a quietly strong start to the year, with nearly 900 passing yards through three games, and with six touchdowns to two interceptions. The Steelers have begun to show signs of life on the back end (they really only looked awful against Mahomes — and it is becoming evident that this will be a trend for the league this season), and even with that nightmare matchup accounting for 33% of the Steelers’ action so far, they rank 23rd in yards allowed per pass attempt and 16th in DVOA. The Steelers’ pass rush has also picked up, as they rank fifth in adjusted sack rate — after finishing first in the NFL in that category last season.
With all that said: this is not a stay-away matchup for Flacco, and the likely high-scoring nature of this game will send the Ravens to the air.
John Brown continues to dominate looks for this Ravens attack, with the deepest aDOT in the NFL (ahead of Tyreek Hill and DeSean Jackson), and with the seventh-highest percentage share of team air yards in the NFL (40.3% — just ahead of Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, and Jarvis Landry). If you’re not tired of hearing me talk up John Brown, I’m not doing my job. With his price finally climbing, it makes it that much more likely that he will continue to go overlooked by the masses.
As expected last week, Willie Snead saw his looks dwindle in the coverage of Chris Harris, while Michael Crabtree worked as the primary underneath option, racking up a low-upside 7-61-0 line on 10 targets. Coming into Week 3, Snead and Crabtree had seen almost identical usage, in terms of role in this offense, with the only major difference being Snead’s elevated snap count from the slot. This week, Snead and Crabtree should split around 12 to 16 targets, with each guy needing an unpredictably big YAC day or a touchdown to pay off.
RAVENS RUN OFFENSE
Pittsburgh is more attackable on the ground, ranking 22nd in both DVOA and yards allowed per carry — though the high-scoring nature of the Steelers’ attack will make it difficult for the Ravens to pile up massive volume in this area.
Through three weeks, Alex Collins has yet to crack 70 yards on the ground, behind an offensive line that ranks 23rd in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards. Collins is averaging 3.4 yards per carry — and while he had a run-tough matchup against Denver last week, he previously took on the Bills and the Cincy defense that CMC undressed in Week 3. He is struggling early in the season and would take a leap of faith to play on the larger slates — though on the Showdown slate, he is at least a workload-secure back, with ascending touch counts of eight, 12, and 21. With only passing back Javorius Allen sharing space with him in the backfield, Collins should touch the ball at least 12 to 18 times once again.
Collins’ upside will always be limited by his two-down role, while Allen’s upside will be limited by his specialist role. Through three games, Allen has touch counts of nine, 11, and nine, though he has buoyed his lines with four touchdowns in all. This is an unappealing split workload when you get down to it, but each guy will see the field and touch the ball, which can be worth something on the Showdown.
I have a theory right now, and I am interested to see how it plays out over the next few weeks:
I think the Steelers have abandoned the run. As in: I don’t think it’s been “game plan specific,” and I don’t think it’s been due to game flow. I think the Steelers have pretty much decided they are going to replace Le’Veon Bell with JuJu Smith-Schuster — running only sporadically (only to “keep the defense honest,” in the purest sense) until later in the second half. This seems like the sort of thing Ben Roethlisberger and Randy Fichtner would try out, and I’ll be interested to see if Pittsburgh once again goes pass-heavy through the early portions of this game. Three weeks in, only four teams have thrown the ball more frequently than Pittsburgh, and they sit at a 67.74% pass rate after notching a 59.7% mark last year.
When Pittsburgh throws the ball, Roethlisberger is locking onto Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, with the former ranking second in the NFL in targets per game at 14.0, and the latter ranking fourth at 12.7. Red zone numbers are skewed toward JuJu so far, but I’m not looking at that as predictive, so much as I’m seeing it as an indication that AB and JuJu are fairly interchangeable right now, with each guy being schemed the ball proactively. Both of these guys are incredibly versatile, and this offense has proven to be versatile as well — with the route trees for each guy looking entirely different from game to game, and with the areas of the field being attacked most heavily by the Steelers changing from game to game as well. Typically in the NFL Edge, our job is to find the area where the defense is weakest, and to then discern which players will benefit as a result. The Steelers are an NFL Edge of their own, as they do this work for us: proactively creating routes and alignments that will enable their two best weapons to pressure the weakest points of a defense. The consistency we are likely to continue seeing this year from two elite receivers on the same roster is going to be extremely impressive. This is another spot where you can feel comfortable with either guy, as the Steelers are working right now to figure out exactly how they can use these two this week to maximize their production.
Usage for James Conner has dipped since Week 1, with carry totals of eight and 15. The eight carries came with the Steelers falling behind early against the Chiefs, but the 15 carries in Week 3 were in danger of not even cracking double-digits before Pittsburgh leaned on the run late while icing a big lead. Baltimore is stout against both the run and the pass, so we shouldn’t credit the run-tough matchup as the reason the Steelers are likelier to take to the air; but we have plenty of reason to believe that this team prefers to trust the aerial attack when all things are equal.
Through the air, Conner has target counts of six, five, and six. He is running plenty of pass routes, but with AB and JuJu downfield, Conner is rarely being schemed the ball through the air. He’s becoming a strange version of the bell-cow running back: a guy playing almost every snap, but still difficult to trust for a clear 20 touches.
With the Steelers and Bucs playing on Monday night, Vance McDonald had his price set before his 4-112-1 line, making him appear underpriced on the full slate. Realistically, however, we highlighted heading into Week 3 the fact that McDonald had run 33 of a possible 71 pass routes the week before, and last week he ran 26 of a possible 43. Vance is going to continue ceding some snaps to Jesse James (and James probably has one or two more big games in him this year as well), and he is going to continue to carry monster upside given his elite YAC ability (similar to Matt Breida: McDonald was a guy I was happy to bet on in Best Ball drafts before the season, as I expected him to put up some big games this year). But he is also going to have some duds along the way, as he is the fourth option on this offense behind the wide receivers and Conner — and there will be weeks when he is really more like the fifth option, with James Washington taking away looks as well. McDonald is an iffy-floor, high-upside play each week.
On the Ravens’ side of the ball, there is really only one guy I would add to my list on the full-weekend slate, in John Brown. On the Showdown slate, Crabtree and Snead hold some sneaky appeal as strong “floor” plays with slender touchdown upside, but neither guy is likely to be a true difference-maker. Joe Flacco is obviously the lesser of the two quarterback options in this spot. The Ravens’ backfield is decent as a space-filler, but so far this year, this unit has been a fairly ineffective split workload. If digging real deep, you could go to the tight end timeshare of Nick Boyle, Maxx Williams, and Mark Andrews; but with Andrews leading this group last week with only 17 pass routes (of a possible 44), that’s digging real deep indeed.
Obviously, I have no interest in the Ravens’ backfield — but if playing the Showdown, it seems likely that one of these guys will score a touchdown. Whichever does could end up proving to be a useful piece.
Big Ben will stand out every week right now as one of the top quarterback options on any given slate. This goes triple or quadruple for small slates. Obviously, AB and JuJu join him as excellent options in almost any matchup at the moment.
Conner is in play on the small slate for his high usage floor, but after the way he was used last week with the Steelers jumping out to a big lead, it is appearing less and less likely that he will turn into a true Le’Veon Bell replacement, with 25+ touches a weekly occurrence. The emergence of JuJu as an elite downfield weapon is taking some of the shine off this play, and unless usage swings heavily back in his favor, he’ll be more “appropriately priced” than “underpriced” moving forward.
You could wrap up this attack with a Showdown shot on McDonald or Washington. Heck, even Jesse James remains in long-shot play. Every week, there will be an opportunity for one of these guys to hit.