On Sunday, the Ravens will kick-off the 2011 NFL season against their most hated rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Over the past three seasons the Ravens-Steelers rivalry has given us several moments on intense joy but unfortunately the Ravens’ 2-6 record has yielded more moments of despair. This week in By the Numbers we’ll look at what made the Steelers so successful in 2010 and piece out what we can expect from them in 2011.

Its easy to hear the name “Pittsburgh Steelers” and imagine a team reliant on running the ball and defense. However, that mental image is no longer correct. The Steelers have forsaken running the ball for a spread passing offense. Last season, the Steelers’ spread the ball out with three or more wide receivers 54% of the time (top third of the league). They weren’t spreading the ball out to run either – when the Steelers ran the ball from their three-wide sets they averaged a league-low 3.25 yards per carry, while finishing the year with the third best passing offense from such formations.

What makes Pittsburgh’s offense even scarier is its youth. None of the Steelers’ three standout skill players – Roethlisberger (QB), Mendenhall (RB) and Wallace (WR) – have accumulated thirty years on this planet. While this can certainly explain their immaturity (Cough, alleged sexual assault. Cough, controversial tweets.), it also means that these players are just entering their prime and could improve this season.

Mike Wallace Catch
These aren't your parents' Steelers. In 2010 Pittsburgh employed a wide spread passing offense.

But even considering their wide open offense and flush youth movement the Steelers are truly defined by the their defense, particularly their run defense. Last year, the Steelers allowed 3.0 yards per carry, only the third team since 2000 to reach that mark. Furthermore, they completely shut down the run on first down, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry. They forced opponents into second and third-and-long, then confused opposing quarterbacks with Dick LeBeau’s blitz scheme.

With both an elite offense and an elite defense the Steelers have been projected by Football Outsiders as the #1 team (in terms of mean wins) for the 2011 NFL regular season. However, much like Palpatine’s Death Star, the Steelers are an evil cog with an achilles’ heel. The dominating nature of Pittsburgh’s defense is reliant on Troy Polamalu. In each of the past two seasons the Steelers’ defense has been significantly less effective by any defensive metric when Polamalu misses games. During the post season last year Polamalu struggled to stay healthy which culminated in the Steelers defense yielding 338 yards and 24 points in Super Bowl 45. Furthermore, the entire defense is the antithesis of youth. In fact, the Pittsburgh defense is one of the oldest in league history. The average age of Pittsburgh’s projected defensive starting lineup for 2011 is 30.5 – 31.5 depending on exact personnel. If the current projected players remain the starters for the entire season, the Steelers will be the oldest defense of the century! Only Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are under the age of 30. This is significant. Age begets injuries and injuries, especially to Polamalu, beget explosive offensive plays.

Death Star
Like the Death Star's design flaw the Ravens hope Polamalu's fragility dooms the Steelers.

One reason why the Ravens are 2-6 against the Steelers, over the last three seasons, is a lack of explosive offensive plays. The two Baltimore wins are the only games out of the eight where Baltimore has had more pass plays of over 20-yards (including pass interference) than Pittsburgh. The table below shows each team’s explosive pass play statistics in detail. Recall, the Ravens attempted to address this issue in the offseason. The new receiving corps appears to be a much better fit for calling deep passing plays than the possession trio of Mason, Bouldin and Houshmandzadeh was last year.

Game Result Steelers (Pass/Yds) Ravens (Pass/Yds)
Week  4,  2008 LOSS 4/136 2/61
Week 15, 2008 LOSS 3/75 1/24
Playoffs,  2008 LOSS 5/183 3/62
Week 12, 2009 WIN 3/75 5/162
Week 16, 2009 LOSS 5/140 2/57
Week  4,  2010 WIN 2/54 3/90
Week 13, 2010 LOSS 4/100 2/128
Playoffs,  2010 LOSS 3/115 2/54

The other commonality between the Ravens two victories over Pittsburgh has been that Ben Roethlisberger did not play for the Steelers in those games. Clearly, this is not coincidental. Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback under pressure, leading all QBs in passing last year on plays Football Outsiders’ charted as “QB hurried”. These “hurries” emphasize one of the few weaknesses of the Pittsburgh offense: it is not impossible to get to Roethlisberger. On offense they only use a max protection formation 11% of the time, which ranked 28th of 32 teams in the NFL in 2010. What the Ravens need to ensure is that when they do try and go after Roethlisberger, they bring the house. Historically, Roethlisberger’s sack rate has increased 1.5 times and the Steelers’ offensive effectiveness has wilted when opposing defenses bring 6-8 rushers compared to 3-5. Constant heavy pressure has shown to not only disrupt the Steeler’s offense but also is more likely to lead to Roethlisberger’s absence where the Ravens have shown they can be successful against the Steelers.

Ultimately, Sunday’s game will be an incredibly difficult one. The Ravens defense has the capability to knock out the Death Star by consistently bringing heavy pressure (6-8 rushers) on Roethlisberger. As Ravens fans we can also hope that by some circumstance age limits the presence of Polamalu on the field. The game should also give us insight into the veracity of The Covered Receiver Theory. History has shown that the Ravens need explosive passing plays to beat Pittsburgh, making this a good test for Joe Flacco and the new offensive weapons. However, despite the nasally decree of The Sports Guy on his recent podcast, this is not a must win game. Instead its the first game in a rivalry series, a series which would be nice to at least split, but not a requirement for making it to the postseason.