The Baltimore Ravens head to unfriendly confines in unfamiliar territory this Thursday when they visit their fiercest rival in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Ravens had never opened the season with three straight losses, while the Steelers are still recovering from the loss of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a sprained MCL. Michael Vick will be thrust into the starting lineup in Big Ben’s absence after signing with the club a month ago.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Ravens and Steelers.
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1. Don’t get beat deep
Vick’s best throw is the deep ball. The Ravens are coming off back-to-back losses that saw them torched for big plays by wideouts Amari Cooper (Raiders) and A.J. Green (Bengals), respectively. The secondary must make every effort to ensure that Antonio Brown stays in front of them for every second he’s on the field.
2. Establish the run early
Last year, Justin Forsett was able to have a career year behind one of the best run-blocking units in the league. The run game has been a complete non-factor so far this year under first-year coordinator Marc Trestman. Trestman needs to find a way to get Forsett, who has just 124 yards through three games, back on track and if he can’t, the bigger Lorenzo Taliaferro should be worked in to avoid another early abandonment of the run game.
3. Confuse and rattle Vick
Reading defenses has never been one of Vick’s strengths, and the Ravens were the first team to sack Andy Dalton, thanks to a safety blitz from Will Hill. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees needs to attack Vick from all angles, but also be careful not to let him run free out of the pocket. The veteran quarterback may be 35 years old, but he’s still one of the faster quarterbacks in the league.
1. Simplify the offense
Todd Haley has run a complex offense through Roethlisberger in their three seasons together. Vick has barely played football over the last three seasons and has only had a month of practice in Pittsburgh, and now he’s taking over on a short week. Vick can’t be expected to have timing or chemistry with his receivers so Haley must minimize Vick’s progressions so that he can get the ball out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Asking him to make more than one or two reads per dropback is asking for trouble.
2. Double-cover Steve Smith Sr. all day
Smith has proven to be the only viable weapon on the Baltimore offense with 25 receptions for 349 yards and two touchdowns. No other receiver has more than six catches and tight end Crockett Gillmore, the only other Raven to find the end zone in the passing game, seems unlikely to play with a calf injury. The only reason Smith shouldn’t have two or three defenders in his face all night is if he trash talks them to death.
3. Get Bell the ball in space
The Ravens will surely be expecting a healthy dose of Le’Veon Bell, but how he gets the ball is another matter. Bell is a sure bet for 20-plus carries, but Vick needs to find him in the short passing game as well. A few screens against what will likely be an aggressive defense could go for long gains.