Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens outside linebacker Tyus Bowser said Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh is “going to be a brawl.”

Former Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva credits John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin for “resisting to give in to each other” after all these years in the AFC North.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale says he enjoys the atmosphere so much at Heinz Field that he’d be open to Baltimore playing two games there every season.

Though the rivalry lacks the shine it enjoyed a decade ago, that doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere.

Much is on the line in what’s become one of the NFL’s best rivalries over the last two decades, but there’s no denying a long chapter in the Ravens-Steelers saga is coming to an end with Ben Roethlisberger in his 18th season and contemplating retirement. The 39-year-old could be down to the final half-dozen games of his career and looks nothing like the future Hall of Fame quarterback who had so many wars with the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, and Terrell Suggs. The AFC-leading Ravens would like nothing more than to send him and Pittsburgh to their third straight loss and a sub-.500 record on Sunday.

It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North foes collide for the 55th time in the all-time series — including the playoffs — with the Steelers leading 30-24 and enjoying an 18-11 advantage at Heinz Field. Counting the postseason, Baltimore is 14-15 against Pittsburgh in the Harbaugh era.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will score a touchdown on their opening drive for the second time all season. The last time the Steelers played in front of their home fans, they tied winless Detroit. They followed that by giving up 41 points in back-to-back weeks in road defeats to the Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati. A fast start for Greg Roman’s offense would quickly sour the Heinz Field crowd, but the Ravens have managed points on just three of their 11 opening drives this season. Despite having the third-best record in the league, Baltimore ranks just 18th in percentage of offensive plays holding a lead at 33.9%, according to Sharp Football. It may not happen against a struggling team on Sunday, but the Ravens’ slow starts are eventually going to catch up with them if something doesn’t change.

2. Chase Claypool will catch a 40-plus-yard touchdown for Pittsburgh. According to Pro Football Reference, only Jared Goff and Tua Tagovailoa have a shorter average depth of target than Roethlisberger, meaning the Ravens will need to prove their tackling problems are behind them for good. However, it will take more than a strong performance against the struggling Cleveland offense to convince anyone that Baltimore has figured out how to stop giving up big plays. It doesn’t help that every cornerback on the 53-man roster was limited by injury or illness over the course of the week, so communication could prove to be a challenge. Roethlisberger doesn’t have the arm to push the ball downfield into tight windows anymore, but he’s still capable of hitting a wide-open receiver because of a coverage bust.

3. Marquise Brown will find the end zone for the first time since the bye. Though the third-year wide receiver is still having easily the best season of his young career, his production is a reflection of what’s happened to the Baltimore passing game since the huge comeback against Indianapolis. Over his first five games, Brown caught five touchdowns and was averaging just over 16 yards per receptions while catching just under 74% of his targets. Since then, the speedy wideout has one touchdown and is averaging just under 10 yards per reception while catching 59.3% of targets. The Steelers are vulnerable in the flats, so look for Lamar Jackson to throw quick passes to Brown and Devin Duvernay to set up double moves later in the game against a secondary that won’t have top cornerback Joe Haden.

4. Roethlisberger will throw an interception to Brandon Stephens at a critical juncture. Though the abilities of Claypool and fellow wide receiver Diontae Johnson aren’t a secret, rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth has become a bigger part of the offense in recent weeks, averaging nearly seven targets per game and catching five touchdowns over the last six contests. The rookie Stephens and fellow safety Chuck Clark will be trusted to keep him in check, but the Ravens haven’t intercepted a pass since the Week 7 loss to Cincinnati. Baltimore will aim to bat passes up in the air and use simulated pressures to force the quick-throwing Roethlisberger to hold the ball, a tactic that should lead to this defense getting a takeaway at a key point.

5. Jackson will throw multiple touchdown passes for just the third time this season in a 24-17 victory over the Steelers. Martindale always tells his defensive players, “If you want to be known in this city, play well against Pittsburgh.” What’s ironic is the name Jackson has already made for himself in franchise lore despite arguably playing his worst game in each of his first two full seasons as a starter against the Ravens’ biggest rival. The 24-year-old quarterback said he let last week’s four-interception performance against the Browns “fester for a couple days,” but he’ll now be facing a Pittsburgh unit looking nothing like a typical Steelers defense — even with All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt being activated from the COVID-19 list on Saturday. Having thrown nine interceptions and averaged 6.3 yards per pass attempt in his five games since the incredible performance against the Colts, Jackson needs to take better care of the football and play at a higher level down the stretch if the Ravens are to maintain their grip on the top seed in the AFC. Pittsburgh is the more desperate squad and can’t be taken lightly for that reason, but the Ravens are the superior team and will make enough plays on both sides of the ball to stay one step ahead in a close game.