The Baltimore Ravens will play their biggest game of the 2020 season, to this point, this coming Sunday. Their matchup against their biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, will be the Ravens chance to bring down the last undefeated team in the NFL and Lamar Jackson‘s first standoff with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The rivalry is one of the greatest historical rivalries in NFL history and Sunday should be another great installment. Baltimore gets perhaps the most important advantage going into the game — they’re coming off of their bye week. Head coach John Harbaugh has a record of 10-2 when coming off of a bye week but the focus will likely not be on Harbaugh’s record, but rather the impact of new trade acquisition defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. The Ravens beefed up their defensive line this past off-season with the addition of Ngakoue’s former Jacksonville Jaguars teammate Calais Campbell and have now gotten either stronger due to their midseason trade. Pass rush from the Baltimore Ravens defensive line has been a problem over the past three seasons and now in 2020, they finally look like they have the talent to consistently get to the quarterback.
The Ravens matchup against the Steelers is their most important game to this point and Ngakoue and the entire defensive line could be a deciding factor. They struggled against the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes during their Week 3 matchup but now have a chance to set the tone for the rest of the season. Ngakoue and the new-look defensive line have had an extra week to practice and now have a chance to announce themselves as an elite unit in potentially the NFL’s game of the year.
Baltimore Ravens Defensive Line Should Improve Against Steelers
Baltimore Needed More Help on the Edge
Over the Ravens rich defensive history, Baltimore has always had a fierce defensive line. From Peter Boulware to Terrell Suggs, and the litany of pass rushers developed in between, Baltimore has never had a problem finding players that can get to the quarterback. However, their play has recently dipped. Baltimore finished 21st in sacks in 2019. They set a franchise record for sacks in a game (11) during their 2018 Week 6 game against the Tennessee Titans but in the following 26 games, averaged just 2.08 sacks a game.
2020 has been an improvement on the past two seasons. Through six games, the Ravens are averaging 3.67 sacks a game and rank fifth in the NFL in total sacks. They also lead the league in scoring defense, quarterback knockdown percentage, and have the most fumbles forced and recovered. Campbell has easily been the most consistent contributor on the defensive line with four sacks, 10 quarterback hits, five tackles for loss, and five pass defenses.
For the Ravens, the whole defense has contributed to getting the quarterback. This is why they’ve had so much statistical success despite the defensive line contributing just 10 sacks. The back-seven of the Ravens has contributed over 50 percent of the team’s sacks. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale‘s team blitz’s at a higher percentage (46.1 percent) than any in the NFL — allowing for the Ravens to always have extra bodies attacking the line of scrimmage.
Adding a pass rusher as effective as Ngakoue allows Martindale to bring down his blitzing percentage and still get good pressure on the opposing quarterback. The frequency with which Baltimore blitzes forces a lot of one-on-one coverage down the field and puts a lot of pressure on the Ravens secondary to be next to perfect. Now with extra edge help, the Ravens defensive line should be more effective on passing downs and allow Martindale to drop more defensive backs into coverage.
Ngakoue Is the Missing Link
Though the Ravens have a history of developing pass rushers, they were missing one that can win in a variety of ways. Matt Judon is a stronger more physical pass rusher with the ability to drop into coverage but heavily benefits from the Raven’s high blitz percentage. He is a bigger and longer edge defender than Ngkaoue but does not have the same variety of pass-rushing tools. Now, the Ravens can torment the Steelers with two different types of players off the edge.
Ngakoue’s first step allows him to get off the line of scrimmage in a flash. He then pairs his quickness with the ability to finesse, power, and chop his way past offensive lineman. Since entering the NFL in 2016, Ngakoue is top-10 in each sacks, quarterback hits, and forced fumbles. In his six games for the Minnesota Vikings this season, Ngakoue is tied for eighth in the league in sacks (five) and tied for sixth in forced fumbles (two).
The Ravens do not have a player like Ngakoue on their roster right now. He might specialize as a pass-rusher but can be a consistent run defender when called upon. If Martindale pleases, however, he can use him as a pass-rush specialist. Each Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson, and Tyus Bowser have all played well enough this year to gather consistent snaps going forward. Martindale can keep Ngakoue fresh and play around with how he can contribute to the defense.
Ngakoue played very well the last time he faced the Steelers. During the Jaguars 2018 playoff game against the Steelers, he had three total tackles, a pass defense, two quarterback hits, and a sack-fumble. He’ll now try and replicate a similar performance against one of the best offensive lines in pro football.
Finally at Full Strength
It’s a lot to ask for an NFL team to stay completely healthy throughout the entirety of a season. The Ravens have dealt with their fair share of injuries so far in 2020 but should have a completely healthy defensive line come Sunday. Both defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe were forced to sit out the Ravens Week 6 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles but should be ready to play against the Steelers.
Williams has been arguably the Ravens best run-stopper over the past half-decade and is always hard to replace when injured. Justin Ellis made his first start as a Raven in place of Williams and his first start in an NFL game since Week 1 of the 2018 season. The last time Williams missed a start due to injury was the Ravens Week 4 matchup with the Cleveland Browns in 2019 when Baltimore gave up 193 rushing yards — their most all season long. The 194 yards on the ground the Ravens gave up to the Eagles were their 10th most all-time and the most since Week 6 of 2017.
Wolfe is more of a variable than Williams but has played 49 percent or more of snaps in each of the four games he’s played in. He has 15 total tackles, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss. His sample size is smaller, but he’s clearly a valuable piece of the Ravens defensive line. In games with Wolfe in the lineup, the Ravens have allowed just 3.8 yards per rushing attempt.
There should be no holes on the defensive line for the Ravens against the Steelers. Ngakoue may not start, but every starter on Baltimore’s defensive line is healthy. The Ravens should have the upper hand at the line of scrimmage against the Steelers 21st ranked yardage.
Dominate in the Trenches
If the Ravens want to beat the Steelers and get back the lead in the AFC North, they need to get pressure on Roethlisberger this coming week. Baltimore struggled to get pressure on Mahomes when they played the Chiefs and it allowed for him to sit back and easily find mismatches downfield. The Ravens finished the game without a sack. While the Steelers do not have nearly the weapons that the Chiefs have, they have a plethora of wide receivers that can become difference makers on the right days.
Being healthy and adding a Pro Bowl-caliber player like Ngakoue gives the Ravens a defensive line that can dominate any offensive line they face. Baltimore’s run defense has never been a problem and now their pass rush needs to take that next step against Pittsburgh.
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