Pittsburgh @ Baltimore
Power rankings: Pittsburgh 24, Baltimore 22
Motivation: Neither team is technically dead, but both are long shots to make the playoffs. The Steelers need to win and the need the full-tank Jaguars to somehow lose to a motivated Colts team. Funny enough, they also would need to Raiders/Chargers game to not end in a tie. The Ravens need to win, the Chargers to lose to the Raiders, the Colts to lose to the Jaguars, and the Dolphins to lose to the Patriots. That fat lady's vocals are warming up.
When the Steelers have the ball:
The Steelers on offense are 15th in DVOA and 22nd in EPA/play. Ben Roethlisberger, who is likely playing his last game of his Hall of Fame career, is 33rd in PFF passing grades (56.1), completing 64.2% of his passes (3.4% below expectation) and gaining 6.2 yards per attempt. Ben adjusts to playing behind a poor offensive line with the fastest time to throw in the league (2.26 seconds on average) and the 2nd lowest aDOT (7.1 yards). The line ranks 31st in ESPN's pass block win rate metric and 29th in run block win rate. His top receiver, Diontae Johnson, was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on January 6th. As has been the case since the league adjusted the COVID-19 rules, this doesn't necessarily mean Johnson is out. Johnson would be a big loss; he currently accounts for 26.3% of the teams targets and 33.1% of air yards. Behind Johnson is Chase Claypool, Ray-Ray McLoud, RB Najee Harris, and TE Pat Freiermuth. Harris also handles essentially all the Steelers rushing attempts. They're equally bad throwing the ball and running, ranking 24th in DVOA in both categories. That said, it's a plus-matchup against a Ravens defense that has been decimated by injury, resulting in a group of 11 men who are incapable of stopping you from driving the ball down their throat. The Ravens are 28th in both DVOA and EPA/play. Their defensive line is a bright spot, ranking 4th in ESPN's run stop win rate and 15th in pass rush win rate -- though they could be without Odafe Oweh, who missed last week with a foot injury and leads the team with 49 pressure on the season. DT Tyus Bowser (40 pressures), DE Justin Houston (39), and DT Calais Cambpell (31) are the other contributors to the pass rush -- Cambpell also being productive against the run. LB Josh Bynes is solid in coverage, against the run, and as a pass rusher, but the rest of the defense has issues. ACL injuries to CB Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey left the defensive backfield decimated. CB Anthony Averett (ribs/chest) isn't good at all, but he's a cornerback on their roster, and he's nursing injuries to his ribs and chest that forced him to miss last week. It should be no surprise that the Ravens are significant better against the run (6th in DVOA) than the pass (30th). They also run a blitz heavy scheme -- sending 5 or more rushers 31% of the time, 5th most in the league. Teams typically opt not to blitz Big Ben -- his short, quick passing style means he's more than ready to combat such a scheme, and as a result he's only been blitzed on 19.5% of dropbacks, 2nd least in the league. Given that the blitz requires your defensive backfield to cover one on one, you'd think the Ravens would ease up -- but it's worth noting that they blitzed Ben on 40.6% of dropbacks in their week 13 matchup. On those throws, Roethlisberger went 8/13 (61.5%) for 114 yards (8.8 YPA), had 2 TDs, and 0 picks. Let's hope Diontae is cleared to play and the Ravens continue that strategy.
When the Ravens have the ball:
It's another week of First and Thirty betting against Lamar Jackson playing. As I've written many times, Jackson is dealing with a bone bruise in his ankle -- far different from a sprain that players can play through, the bone bruise requires rest to properly heal. This isn't coming from me, it's coming from doctors who actually know what the fuck their talking about (shoutout profootballdoc). Jackson is more likely to play this week then he was the previous 2, obviously, but with the Ravens needing a 1980-US-Men's-Ice-Hockey-Olympic-level miracle to make the playoffs, the Ravens may find it wise to simply shut him down. Even if he can go, he'll certainly be far from 100%. I'll be interested in checking to see how the line ends up moving and will report back on that in the recap. For the Ravens offense, they're 14th in DVOA and 15th in EPA/play. Assuming Jackson can't play, Tyler Huntley will get his 4th start of the season. Among 39 qualifiers, Huntley ranks 25 in PFF passing grades (65.3), completes 67.5% of his passes (2% above expectation), and gains 6.0 yards per attempt. Huntley, a poor man's Lamar Jackson, does have abilities on the ground, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt with 2 touchdowns on the season. The difference between the two -- apart from their abilities -- is the preference for the deep ball, Jackson ranks 2nd in aDOT at 10.0 while Huntley is 24th at 7.8. The offensive line ranks 13th in ESPN's pass block win rate and 4th in run block win rate. The line has been without LG Ben Powers (foot) since week 14. His replacement, Ben Cleveland, has been the one true weak spot on the line. Huntley/Jackson will look mostly to Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews, with rookie Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay chipping in. On the ground, Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray operate at about a 60/40 split in favor of Freeman. They're slightly better running the ball than passing, ranking 11th in DVOA running and 16th passing. On defense, the Steelers are 15th in DVOA and 18th in EPA/play. The line ranks 13th in pass rush win rate and 29th in run block win rate. The pass rush is led by DT Cam Heyward (58 pressures), DE TJ Watt (56), DE Alex Highsmith (35), and DT Chris Wormley (25). Watt has an insane 21.5 sacks this year, putting him 1 sack away from Michael Strahan's 20 year record. Heyward and Watt are all around game disrupters -- Heyward is 2nd among all lineman with 7 batted passes this season, while Watt is 3rd with 5. Outside of the line is a slew of struggling players, including corner, safety, and linebacker. It also doesn't help that CB Joe Haden is on the COVID-19 list and S Terrell Edmunds injured his groin during last Monday's win against the Browns. I will, however, highlight CB Ahkello Witherspoon, who has seen his playing time increase since week 13. On the season he has a PFF coverage grade of 82.6, 5th best among corners. He's been targeted 30 times on the year, only allowing 14 receptions (46.7%) and picking 3 passes off. The Steelers are much better against the pass (13th in DVOA) than the run (27th), which is ideal in today's NFL, but not as much against a Ravens offense that loves to run.