Its Pittsburgh Week here at BSR and even with emotions running high throughout the site, By the Numbers will try to remain objective. That’s right, the headline of this article is not meant to be some clever shot at Steelers fans. Instead its a summary of an analytical argument that doesn’t over-rate Pittsburgh’s Week 8 win against the New England Patriots. The first thing to note is that despite the win, Pittsburgh dropped from the #11 ranked team to the #12 ranked team by Football Outsider’s DVOA. Furthermore, its important to note that while Pittsburgh won, they hardly dominated the Pats. In particular, the Steelers’ offense slowed down in the fourth quarter, converting just one 1/4 third downs and losing yardage on two big sacks that gave the Patriots a chance to comeback with 30 seconds left.
Pittsburgh is also currently ravaged by injuries. Harrison, Farrior and Woodley are all expected to miss Sunday’s game against the Ravens. Woodley’s absence is especially important because the Steelers pass rush limped off the field when Woodley left last week’s game with a hamstring injury. James Harrison’s replacement, Lawrence Timmons has minimal pass rush skills and rookie Chris Carter, only possesses a predictable speed rush with no counter if offensive tackles sells out to stop it.
Still Pittsburgh’s most important defensive player, coordinator Dick LeBeau, will have an impact on Sunday night. Last week LeBeau dared New England to run and throw deep — staying in nickel packages even when New England went to two and three tight-end sets. The Patriots attempted neither. Instead opting to dogmatically attack Pittsburgh with the short passing game. This week I expect LeBeau to employ the opposite strategy: stuff the run and preventing the big play deep, while allowing the Ravens to complete short passes underneath. LeBeau’s strategy (presumably) is that at some point the Steelers will generate enough pressure to make Flacco make a mistake and that Flacco isn’t great throwing the ball short, he is much better throwing deep. The Ravens can counter this with screen passes to Ray Rice, but Rice will have to break several tackles for such an attack to be successful.
On offense the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers attack through Mike Wallace. The wideout has scored from at least 40 yards out, three times this year and thirteen times in this 3 year career. This feat is especially remarkable considering the decline of the deep pass in today’s NFL. Wallace’s three TD catches of 40 or more yards this season tie him with Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers and Pierre Garcon of the Indianapolis Colts for the most in the league. The Ravens secondary will have its hands full on Sunday with Wallace. While the pressure the defensive line forced on Big Ben helped in Week 1 Wallace still caught 8 passes for 107 yards.
Ultimately, the Ravens are in a great position to sweep Pittsburgh and claim control of the AFC North this week. With a humbling win last week and Ngata expected to play the team is healthy and motivated. We’ll blatantly ignore the 34% chance the Ravens have of winning and predict a birds victory.