Feeling Better About Steelers vs. Ravens

Marty Flaherty breaks down the draft of the Steelers' chief rival, and can't help but question the direction of the Baltimore Ravens.

Prior to the draft, I made a spirited case for the Steelers adding to the offense with early draft picks to give Ben Roethlisberger a supporting cast on par with John Elway's during two Super Bowl seasons. And when the team went with two defenders in the top two rounds, a reader reminded me that they didn't need to borrow someone else's blueprint.

In 2005, the Steelers were No. 3 in points allowed, No. 4 in yards allowed, and No. 12 in turnovers. In 2008, the defense was No. 1 in both yards and points, No. 9 in turnovers. And in 2010, they ranked No. 1 in yards and points, No. 3 in turnovers. Every Super Bowl team was built on a smothering defense with a ton of front-seven talent.

So when they draft an inside linebacker and a defensive lineman with their top two picks, they're following the lead of what worked before.

The Ravens followed basically the same script the Steelers did, and have long been compared to the Steelers in terms of a commitment to defensive football. But the team the Ravens are building appears to be different from what worked for them in 2012.

That 2012 Ravens defense was 13th in points allowed (21.5 per game), 16th in yards allowed (351 per game) and 15th in turnovers (with 25). That's pretty far from dominant, and it paints a picture that is prettier than I think is accurate. The defense gave up 31 or more points four times in their final eight games. Two games went into overtime, but there's really no disputing that the defense wasn't stopping anybody good.

So I can't argue with rebuilding the defense. But going into the 2012 season, they had spent their top pick on a defender three years running. In 2013, they went safety, linebacker, DT with their top three picks. It seemed to me like overkill to add the same three positions in the top three rounds a year later.

Especially when you consider the fact that the offense went from a top-10 offense scoring 24.9 points a game in 2012 to a bottom-10 offense scoring 20 points a game in 2013.

That top-10 offense was built on the strength of downfield passing.

Against Indianapolis in the wild-card round, deep passes of 22, 50, 46, 21 and 18 yards accounted for more than 55 percent of Joe Flacco's passing yardage.

Against Denver, he completed passes of 59, 32, 70 and 24 yards. This time, four deep balls accounted for more than 55 percent of his total yards, as well as being key plays on the drives that led to all three of his passing TDs. Ray Rice scored another one on a drive where he basically carried the whole load himself. And the rest of the game was three-and-outs and punts.

Flacco had more success on short and intermediate routes against New England, but then, New England had the 29th-ranked pass defense in terms of yards. And even then, three deep throws for 25, 26 and 23 yards accounted for more than 30 percent of Flacco's total yards.

Against the 49ers, deep passes for 30, 23, 56, and 30 yards accounted for more than 48 percent of his total yards.

(Just to clarify, shorter passes in which the receiver ran for big yards after the catch were not counted in any of these totals. Only throws that covered 20 yards from the line of scrimmage in the air. The 18-yard catch against Indy was caught several yards deep in the end zone, as I recall.)

Those who don't think much of Flacco might be inclined to look at these deep passing plays as "heaving the ball up for grabs." Certainly the receivers deserved a ton of credit on some of them. Since he threw more than 100 deep passes in 2012 with zero interceptions on these throws, we'll call it "judicious exploitation of single coverage."

In 2013, he threw one TD and eight picks on 78 deep throws. Not quite so judicious.

But whatever you call it, it's pretty clear that the Ravens' trump card in 2012 was going deep and converting several times a game. That formula for success took a hit when they traded Anquan Boldin for a token draft pick and cap space. When the Rice-led running game suddenly wasn't any good, they had very little going for them.

For my part, I think that Flacco makes mostly good decisions downfield and throws a nice deep ball. With a decent running game and great receivers, Flacco made some big plays in big moments and earned a huge contract. And the Ravens drafted DTs, ILBs and safeties while the supporting cast that had Flacco firing on all cylinders withered.

Their solution in round one was to go back to the same dealer who sold them a 2.4-tackle, 0.136-sack-per-start lemon in Courtney Upshaw, for yet another linebacker.

My nightmare was them replacing Boldin with the best Florida State receiver since Boldin, Kelvin Benjamin.

The measureables and stats for the final college year are uncannily similar, except for the part where Benjamin is enormous.

Boldin: 6-0.5, 215, 4.72 40, 33.5 vj, 9-6 bj, 4.33 shuttle, 7.35 3-cone, 1,011 yards, 13 TDs.

Benjamin: 6-5, 240, 4.61 40, 32.5 vj, 9-11 bj, 4.39 shuttle, 7.33 3-cone, 1,011 yards, 15 TDs.

Bringing in Steve Smith was a nice stopgap. And I guess you could say they have the same "type" of player in Marlon Brown, but I thought they already had the same type of LB as C.J. Mosley in Arthur Brown.

Boldin wasn't that tall or athletic, but he had a knack for turning 50-50 throws into 70-30 throws downfield. Benjamin could've turned some of those into 100-0 throws. He's perhaps the ideal receiver (outside of Calvin Johnson) for what Flacco does best.

In round two, the Ravens added a college nose tackle to a defense that – while only getting seven games and zero starts out of 2013's third-round nose tackle Brandon Williams, not to mention 14 games and zero starts out of last year's second-round ILB Brown – allowed 3.8 yards per rushing attempt last season. Only three teams allowed less.

So while Timmy Jernigan probably makes them stronger up the middle, it's unclear why that was a problem, especially with last year's third-rounder in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, their running game went from 11th in yards, 12th in YPA during their Super Bowl season, to 30th in yards, 32nd in YPA in 2013. That's not doing Flacco any favors. Addressing the running game would've made sense, because that's what creates the single coverage Flacco thrives upon.

Troy Niklas, for example, would have given them blocking help in-line, as well as the second receiving TE they clearly wanted.

Meanwhile, years that I thought I had wasted on fantasy football have nonetheless advised me that, as a running back approaches 2,250 career touches, you can expect a steep decline in production, before the cliff at 3,000 touches. Rice, while only 27, is at 1,799 — about 24 games away from that dropoff. And Rice didn't get there early with the help of almost 1,000 touches from his heavy college workload. That made a guy like Bishop Sankey a viable option, even if you assume that Rice will avoid the 3-to-5-year prison sentence a conviction for his alleged crimes would mean for most in his position.

Moreover, in addition to a miserable rushing game, the Ravens gave up sacks on 7.2% of dropbacks for a total of 48, compared to 6.4% and 38 in 2012. So an offensive line pick would've helped in more than one regard.

But I can't point to a lineman I would've been thrilled with there, so I'll just point out Davante Adams, who, like Benjamin, made a lot of contested catches and suits Flacco's strengths. They could still have gotten Flacco a weapon even after taking their fifth top-60 LB in six drafts. Instead, they took their third day-two nose tackle in five years.

Perhaps I'm underselling free-agent lineman Jeremy Zuttah's contributions to these weaknesses, but it seems like very little has been added to the offense since the Super Bowl win.

Mosley and Jernigan might end up being defensive cornerstones and astute additions by the Ravens. But between this day and that, I'm going to feel a lot better about the Steelers playing the Ravens.

Maybe they gave Flacco too little credit and thought the defense was the key to their Super Bowl win. Maybe they gave him too much credit and thought he could win with a lesser supporting cast. All I know is they didn't give him much to work with.

And when you give a guy a nine-figure contract, and he's the 32nd-ranked passer in a 32-team league as a result of throwing 10 more interceptions than in any prior season and the fewest TD passes since his rookie year, I wouldn't say you're maximizing your investment.


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