Ravens vs Steelers 11/1/20

The Ravens played well enough to win on defense, but Steelers converted all 3 of their red-zone opportunities for TDs and had 2 penalty-aided drives of 77+ yards in the 2nd half to snatch the victory. 

The Steelers unsuccessfully probed the Ravens run defense in the first half, then adjusted after halftime with 4-WR packages that forced the Ravens into a weak version of their dime defense.

Weak Dime Exploited

The Ravens entered the game with significant questions in the secondary.

Among cornerbacks, Anthony Averett, Iman Marshall, and Tavon Young are all on IR.  Untested first-year players Terrell Bonds and Khalil Dorsey, both of whom have spent time on the practice squad this season, were the 4th and 5th CBs.  The 3rd CB, Jimmy Smith, is nursing an achilles injury.

The Ravens also played the game with only 2 safeties they were prepared to play on defense.  Anthony Levine has been listed on the injury report and has not played on defense since week 2.  Special teams ace Jordan Richards does not play his listed position of safety and 7th round draft pick Geno Stone was relegated to the practice squad.  Nigel Warrior, who went undrafted has not been elevated either, despite the vacancy.

The Ravens used ILB Chris Board as a proxy 3rd safety on 6 snaps, 4 of which ended drives.  He was not the problem. 

However, against 4-WR alignments, the Ravens required a 4th CB, Terrell Bonds.  The Steelers exploited that package in the 2nd half with empty 4-WR formations to go after Bonds and ILB Patrick Queen.  Bonds played 12 of his 15 snaps on the Steelers 2 long scoring drives.  He surrendered 3 completions on 3 targets and was flagged for a pass interference call derided by announcer Tony Romo (“Yeah, I did not see a lot there”).  Terrell also gave up on a completion to TE Eric Ebron, apparently thinking the ball had not been caught (Q4, 11:48).

The Steelers took advantage of Patrick Queen, who was not in position to take the zone pass off from LJ Fort on Ebron’s 18-yard TD (Q3, 13:27).

On the Steelers final touchdown drive, they passed every play and did not have a completion over 11 yards, but they drove 80 yards assisted by Humphrey’s 20-yard DPI and a face mask by Chuck Clark.  Slants, shallow crosses, and pick/rub routes off bunch formations were the primary weapon.

Offensive coordinators will often refer to 11 personnel as “forcing the nickel”, because virtually all NFL teams will insert a SCB on such snaps.  In this game, the Steelers identified the Ravens weakness, forced the dime with 4-WR formations, and exploited it with impunity in the 2nd half.  It’s an indication of the effectiveness of this scheme that The Steelers went to a 4-WR set:

  • Twice on 3rd and 1, converting both times by pass
  • On 2nd and 7 from their own 9-yard line (Q4, 1:52).  Roethlisberger completed a 6-yard pass to Dionte Johnson on a short cross when an incomplete pass would have had dire clock consequences.

The Ravens will need to address both dime package shortcomings in advance of meetings with AFC rivals Indianapolis, Tennessee, Cleveland, and the rematch with the Steelers.  Each of them, as well as any potential playoff opponents, have QBs capable of picking apart defenses with short throws.

Prior to Tuesday, I expect the Ravens to investigate available SCBs.  Both Desmond King (LAC) and Brian Poole (NYJ) are reportedly available.  Acquiring a good SCB would improve the nonexistent depth in the secondary, move Humphrey back to RCB full time, and allow Jimmy Smith to play in the dime role needed, be that as a 4th CB vs 4-WR sets or 3rd safety.  It would also allow Smith to play fewer snaps on his injured achilles.  Smith’s outstanding play has been a godsend to this defense, but relying on him as a full-time player is dangerous at best and the Ravens should look to conserve him for the highest leverage downs.

At ILB, the answer is simpler.  Patrick Queen needs to come off the field on obvious passing downs and against personnel groups which signal empty formations.  One benefit of having Clark wear the green dot is the flexibility of substitution at ILB.  Queen played all 53 snaps against the Steelers, which included 15 snaps with 4 wide receivers.  I believe Queen will be a top ILB at some time soon, but the Ravens have just entered the most difficult portion of their schedule, which will determine their playoff seeding and right now they are better served to have LJ Fort on the field for such snaps.  In Martindale’s defense, the early exit of Matt Judon limited package options on 3rd down which may have contributed to Queen’s 3-down responsibilities.


Note: all snap totals exclude penalties resulting in no play, kneels, spikes, and specials team plays resulting in a run or pass.  As such, they will be lower than other published totals.

The Steelers ran just 50 such snaps.

Jumbo (2): The Ravens inserted a jumbo package for 2 snaps on the final Steelers drive.  Each included 4 DL, 2 ILB, 2 OLB, and 3 DBs. 2 plays, 3 yards.

Base (9): The Ravens used their base 3-4 defense with 2 ILB and 2 OLB vs some 12 personnel as well as jumbo (6 OL) packages, all of which occurred on 1st or 2nd down.  Those included 7 snaps in the first half.  9 plays, 19 yards, 2.1 YPP.

Jumbo Nickel (1): The Ravens used this package just once (Q3, 11:48) against 11 personnel.  Queen was the only ILB.  1 play, 1 yard.

Rush Nickel (4): Martindale inserted a nickel with 1 DL, 2 ILB, 3 OLB on 4 separate 3rd-down snaps, all of which resulted in drive-ending plays (2 incompletes, 1 complete for 0, 1 sack).  Each of these was a case where the Ravens would normally have used the dime, but used Board as a surrogate for a 3rd safety (see above).  4 plays, -2 yards, -0.5 YPP, 1 sack.

Racecar Nickel (1): The Ravens played a snap with 1 DL, 1 ILB, 4 OLB (3rd and 10, Q1, 3:01) on which McPhee took down Conner for a gain of 4 to force a punt.  That was an odd play choice we have rarely seen from the Roethlisberger-era Steelers.  During the Martindale era, the Ravens have played almost 150 snaps with 4 OLBs, but this was the first with only 5 DBs since the first 3 times it was used in the 2018 opener vs Buffalo.  1 play, 4 yards. 

Standard Nickel (18): The standard nickel includes 2 down linemen, 2 OLB, and 2 ILB and is the Ravens most common response to 11 personnel on early downs.  18 plays, 111 yards, 6.2 YPP.

Chris Board was inserted for 2 consecutive snaps (beginning 2nd and 17, Q3, 8:22) where he may have effectively been a 3rd safety (the personnel and alignment also matches a standard nickel, so his position definition is not important).  He slipped on the first snap in coverage of a 13-yard screen to Conner.  He was then closest in zone on Roethlisberger’s 3rd and 4 conversion to Smith-Schuster.

With Williams and Wolfe back, the Steelers rushed for 35 yards on 8 carries (4.4 YPC) versus the standard nickel.  That’s not up to the Ravens historical standards, but it was a big improvement from the 14.6 YPC for which the Eagles ran 2 weeks ago without these 2 stout run defenders.

Dime (15): The Ravens reduced their dime usage with a thin DB corps (see above).  They used a 4-CB version including 1 DL, 1 ILB, 3 OLB, and 6 DBs (2 snaps included 2 DL, 1 ILB, 2 OLB): 15 plays (all passes), 85 yards, 1 sack, 1 TO, 5.7 YPP.

What was odd about these dime snaps is how they were atypical insofar as usage by down and distance.  To summarize:

  • It was deployed twice on 3rd and 1 but never otherwise on 3rd down.  Both were converted by pass.
  • It was otherwise used exclusively on 1st or 2nd down and the Steelers dictated its usage with 4 wide receivers

We’ve been spoiled in Baltimore by years of outstanding dime defense and the overall results of the package were good enough to win in the absence of the lopsided turnover result.  However, the fact the Steelers chose to force the dime and then successfully exploited it on both long TD drives it is a significant concern.

Pass Rush

Martindale used a game plan which relied on less scheme and numbers than in previous weeks.  Some will see this as evidence Ngakoue is allowing the Ravens to get by with less, but I think there was a greater willingness to spread the coverage to best combat the Steelers array of short passes and Roethlisberger’s NFL-low time to release (2.29 seconds).

The Ravens failed to generate a lot of impactful pressure, in large part because Big Ben delivered the ball 14 times before pressure could develop.  He had Ample Time and Space (ATS) on just 5 of 34 drop backs (15%), yet the Ravens only turnover generated was on a fumble after the catch. 

Summarizing by number of pass rushers:

3: 1 play, 8 yards

4: 21 plays, 130 yards, 6.2 YPP, 1 sack

5: 12 plays, 35 yards, 2.9 YPP, 1 sack, 1 TO

6+: None

Total: 34 plays, 173 yards, 5.1 YPP, 2 sacks, 1 TO

The Ravens sent 5 on 12 of 34 drop backs (35%), which is less often than in any game except that at Washington (31%).  This was also the first game of 2020 when the Ravens did not have a single rush of 6+.

Martindale used a season-low 5 individual blitzes from off the LoS, led by 2 each from Humphrey and Queen. 

The Ravens used 10 individual stunts split over 8 pass plays.  Those plays with stunts included both sacks, 2 other QHs, and 2 pressures.  Roethlisberger completed 4 of 6 (plus 2 sacks) for 18 net yards (2.3 YPP).  I look at the stunt success as a positive leading indicator for the Ravens pass rush for the rest of 2020.  I expect they’ll be effective with more Matthew Judon and against less experienced QBs and offensive lines.

On 5 occasions they dropped 2+ from the LoS to cover.  Only against Washington (3) did the Ravens use simulated pressure less often. 

Of 34 drop backs, 5 rushes were deceptive as I define it by incorporating 2 or more of the above elements.  Those plays included 2 completions for 7 net yards (1.4 YPP). 

The Ravens pass rush played well enough to win as evidenced by the Steelers 5.1 YPP, but the defense failed to generate a number of turnovers reflective of Roethlisberger’s lack of ATS opportunities and they had both penalties and breakdowns in the secondary that were costly.

Individual Notes by Positional Grouping

Note: all snap totals exclude penalties resulting in no play, kneels, spikes, and specials team plays resulting in a run or pass.  As such, they will be lower than other published totals. 

Defensive Line

Justin Ellis and Broderick Washington were healthy scratches, leaving the Ravens with just 4 active DL.  That turned out to be more than sufficient as Calais Campbell (26 snaps), Brandon Williams (25 snaps), Derek Wolfe (26 snaps), and Justin Madubuike (18 snaps) combined to shut down the run effectively (16 carries, 48 yards, 3.0 YPC).

Wolfe contributed to 2 pressures by setting the pick on stunts (Q4, 11:48; Q4, 10:37) by Bowser and Ferguson respectively.  It’s an indication of his effectiveness that those stunts targeted the right A gap between Pro Bowlers DeCastro and Pouncey.


Jaylon Ferguson’s performance (21 snaps) is detailed below (see Star Treatment).  The Steelers rushed 9 times for 9 yards when he was in the game and Ferguson flashed in all facets.

Matthew Judon (9 snaps) was lost after an inadvertent punch on an official while trying to escape the grasp of a Ravens staffer.  Unfortunately, he put himself in that position by going after Dionte Johnson in his skirmish with Marcus Peters. Rather than trying to separate Peters, he tackled Johnson.  Hockey fans understand the 3rd man in is most heavily penalized.  I expect he will be fined, but not suspended. 

Matthew is set up for a productive remainder to the season with the acquisition of Ngakoue allowing him to rush more often as a standing ILB where his gap-selection skills paired with the abilities of Campbell, Wolfe, and McPhee to draw multiple blocks should provide some juicy rush opportunities.

Pernell McPhee (33 snaps) had another outstanding game (see Star Treatment).  He and Ferguson set the edge effectively and Pernell continues to contribute to the pass rush.

Yannick Ngakoue (31 snaps) had a quiet Ravens debut with just 2 pressures, but both were impactful.  He bulled LT Villanueva for pressure (Q1, 3:48) and Ben was forced to check down to Conner for no gain.  He stunted through the right A gap for the initial pressure (Q2, 4:42) and despite the fact he was unable to bring down Roethlisberger, Ben was forced to tuck as Elliott and Board finished the S-2.  His snaps were split 27 pass and 4 run which is a favorable split for his abilities.


Marcus Peters had a fine game.  He immediately made up for his early pass interference with a strip and recovery on the following play (Q1, 7:58).  He had a PD on a 26-yard pass down the right sideline in coverage of Claypool (Q4, 11:53).  He also made a fine tackle on the crossing route to Dionte Johnson (Q4, 1:52) which could have sealed the game for the Steelers.

Jimmy Smith was again excellent as an outside CB.  He allowed 2 short completions for 8 yards with 0 YAC.  It always makes me smile when Jimmy can give another receiver the “Ike Taylor” treatment, but it’s especially fun versus the Steelers.  On Sunday, he used the boundary to force WR Dionte Johnson to break stride on 3rd and 10 (Q3, 14:20) to end the Steelers first possession after halftime.   

Star Treatment

Jaylon Ferguson (21 snaps) had the sort of complete performance Ravens fans had hoped for since the Suggs comparisons on draft day last season:

  • (Q3, 9:08):  He cleaned up Campbell’s initial pressure for S-7.
  • (Q3, 7:05):  He shed the pulling LG Feiler then tackled RB Conner for a loss of 3.
  • (Q3, 1:44):  He dropped to a short zone and appeared to be in Roethlisberger’s throwing lane which may have caused a misfire to WR Smith-Schuster.
  • (Q4, 10:37):  He stunted through the right A-gap set up by Wolfe for a QH but was unable to get the right arm of Ben who threw PM4 while going down.

Jaylon has earned a bigger role in a crowded OLB rotation and may help serve to keep McPhee rested for passing downs.

Pernell McPhee (33 snaps) continued his fine play of the last 2 games with a combination of edge setting and pass rush contributions:

  • (Q1, 8:37):  He held the left edge vs. TE Ebron to string out Conner for RL-1 knocked OOB by Clark.
  • (Q2, 5:59):  He held the right edge vs. pulling RG DeCastro until help arrived on Conner’s RR-2.
  • (Q3, 14:04):  He worked off a block from TE McDonald to force Conner inside for RM3.
  • (Q3, 13:27):  He beat RT Okorafor with speed for a pressure on PR18 TD.
  • (Q3, 10:18):  He split a double team from LG Feiler and C Pouncey for a fast pressure on PL9.
  • (Q3, 9:50):  He beat LG Feiler outside for pressure on PL8.
  • (Q4, 11:53):  He rushed unblocked off the offensive left side (OLS) for a QH as Ben threw incomplete for WR Claypool.

I won’t select defensive MVPs due to the loss, but the Ravens defensive problems were specific and (I hope) correctable.