Steelers look to slow down rejuvenated Ravens offense
Historically built around a stout defense, the Baltimore Ravens are back in familiar territory this season, ranking No. 1 in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game and fifth in fewest points surrendered.
On offense, though, these hardly are your father’s Ravens.
The group that will visit Heinz Field on Sunday night to tussle with the Pittsburgh Steelers is no longer the plodding, run-the-ball, keep-the-score-close Ravens of yesteryear.
Behind a rejuvenated Joe Flacco, the Ravens (2-1) not only are one of five teams averaging more than 30 points per game, they are doing it via the pass. The Ravens rank ninth in passing yards per game with Flacco enjoying his best start to a season in six years.
Flacco is averaging 296 yards passing while throwing six touchdown passes against two interceptions.
“He looks healthy, he looks good, he looks the best I’ve seen him in a while,” said cornerback Joe Haden, who has faced Flacco twice annually since breaking into the NFL in 2010. “He’s just throwing the ball on time and to the right place.”
No longer dealing with back pain, Flacco is averaging 100 more yards passing per game than in 2017 when he had 18 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions while the Ravens went 9-7 and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year. His 889 yards passing is his most after three games since he had 912 in 2012.
“Joe is Joe,” inside linebacker Jon Bostic said. “He’s going to sling the ball across the field. He can do a lot of things on the run, he can extend plays. He can still get the ball down the field.”
While Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes are leading the new wave of NFL gunslingers, and Ryan Fitzpatrick is having a FitzMagical start to his season, Flacco isn’t getting as much publicity, but he has led the Ravens to the top of NFL in one enviable category: red-zone offense.
The Ravens have scored touchdowns on all 12 trips inside the red zone this year, becoming the first team in NFL history to accomplish that feat. The trend started in the opening week when the Ravens put up 47 points on the Bills and scored touchdowns on all six trips inside the Buffalo 20. The past two weeks, the Ravens scored three times inside the 20 in a loss to Cincinnati and a win against Denver.
“We score touchdowns, that’s been the idea,” said coach John Harbaugh, trying not to overanalyze his team’s red-zone success. “What’s happened there? We’ve made plays. We’ve been able to run the ball, we have balance. Joe has extended plays, and we’ve made catches.”
Not to mention some clutch runs. While the Ravens rank just No. 26 in rushing — the Steelers are three spots higher — they have found balance inside the red zone. Half of the 12 red-zone touchdowns have come via runs. Javorius Allen has scored three rushing TDs and starter Alex Collins two. Allen also has chipped in with a receiving touchdown.
“They are running the ball with a lot of their concepts,” Bostic said. “Our eyes have to be in the right places, our corners will have to come up and tackle. We know that. They know that.”
The Steelers also will have to deal with a new trio of wide receivers. In the offseason, the Ravens added Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead in free agency. Brown is averaging 18.5 yards per catch and has a team-high two touchdowns.
“We’ve always thought of them as a running team, and they still run the ball well, but now they’ve got some really good receivers,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “We have to make sure we can lock them up.”
Mark Andrews, a tight end drafted in the third round, has a touchdown catch and is averaging 13.4 yards per reception. He will soon be joined by first-round pick Hayden Hurst, who hasn’t played yet because of a stress fracture in his foot.
“They have a lot of different route combinations,” Haden said. “Flacco is throwing the ball on time, and he’s getting the ball to the athletes. They are making plays. You’ve got to stop them.”
An unfamiliarity with Flacco’s trio of new pass catchers is a reason, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believes, that defenses haven’t stopped the Ravens inside the red zone.
“When you have so many newcomers, there’s an element of the unknown,” Tomlin said. “People try to figure out how to match up against them, how the new key components are going to divide the labor and who to minimize situationally. I think sometimes when you go through that transition, it’s positive for you because people are trying to figure out what it is that you do.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.