Late for Work 1/7: What Pundits Expect in Ravens-Steelers Regular-Season Finale

010722-LFW
S Chuck Clark

Majority of Pundits Pick Ravens to Beat Steelers

Ravens-Steelers games are always special, but Sunday's regular-season finale between the archrivals at M&T Bank Stadium will be extra special — and not just because Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Cheap Trick will be playing at halftime.

Steelers quarterback and Ravens nemesis Ben Roethlisberger will play what will likely be the final game of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. It's fitting that it will be against the Ravens in Baltimore, because that's where his career as the Steelers quarterback began.

Back in Week 2 in 2004, rookie quarterback Roethlisberger entered the game against the Ravens after veteran starter Tommy Maddox suffered an injury in the third quarter. Roethlisberger has been the Steelers' starting quarterback and one of the faces of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry ever since.

"The first game I ever played in the NFL was there," Roethlisberger said this week, per ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "And it was Ed Reed and [Haloti] Ngata, Suggs, [Ray] Lewis. You could go down a whole list of guys, and so it was never a lot of fun to play those guys. I think it's a lot of respect, and it's going to be pretty cool."

Sunday's game also has playoff implications. The Ravens (8-8) and Steelers (8-7-1) remain in contention for the seventh and final AFC playoff berth, but they'll each need a win and help, including the Jacksonville Jaguars upsetting the Indianapolis Colts. ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Steelers an 8% chance of making the playoffs and the Ravens a 3% chance.

The majority of pundits we looked at (29 of 44) are picking the Ravens to win and avoid being swept by the Steelers for the second year in a row.

The loser of this game will benefit next season by getting a higher draft pick and easier schedule, but that won't be on either side's minds on Sunday. These two proud franchises and fierce rivals will never "surrender."

Here's a sample of what pundits are saying about the game:

The Ravens will end their five-game losing streak in yet another close game.

The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec: "They're bound to win another close game at some point, and I think [Head Coach John] Harbaugh really wants to avoid a second straight sweep by the Steelers and a six-game losing streak heading into the offseason."

Expect a typical Ravens-Steelers slugfest.

Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport: "Neither of these teams are making the playoffs. The Colts are going to make sure of that by curb-stomping the Jaguars. But that won't stop this from being a knockdown, drag-out brawl of a game, as so many Ravens-Steelers matchups are."

Whether it's Lamar Jackson or Tyler Huntley at quarterback, the Ravens will have an edge in the air and on the ground against the Steelers defense.

Next Gen Edge: "Baltimore is top 10 in completion percentage, completions and touchdowns on throws of 10-plus air yards downfield. Pittsburgh has allowed a 100.7 passer rating on throws of 10-plus air yards — that's 22nd in the NFL. Look for that to be a factor in this game. Huntley and Jackson have very similar production as runners too. Quarterbacks have had a lot of success running the ball against the Steelers defense this year. Pittsburgh's defense ranks 24th in rush yards allowed, 27th in yards per carry allowed and 28th in first down runs allowed by quarterbacks."

NBC Sports' Chris Simms: "It doesn't matter if it's Lamar or Huntley, I think the Ravens kind of dominate this game, or at least control the game."

The Ravens need to get their running backs involved in the passing game.

Russell Street Report's James Ogden: "One thing the Ravens did well in the first meeting between these two on offense was target their backs in the passing game. The Steelers defense is very good at taking away your primary pass-catching threat, and the Ravens did well to target their backs out of the backfield at a more regular clip than they usually do. The added advantage to this is that it starts to manipulate the underneath zones when the Steelers run Cover 3 and gets the hook/curl, curl/flat defenders having to respect their underneath coverage responsibilities, and, hopefully starts to get them to cheat outside/down to open up the seams for [Mark] Andrews to do some damage. The Ravens should look to target [Devonta] Freeman and Latavius Murray out of the backfield, who both proved they have that club in their bag in the Week 13 meeting."

T.J. Watt is closing in on the NFL single-season sack record and has a favorable matchup.

ESPN's Jamison Hensley: "Watt has 21.5 sacks this season, putting him 1.5 away from breaking Michael Strahan's single-season mark. Ravens right tackle Patrick Mekari has allowed 11 sacks this season, tied for the sixth most in the NFL. And five weeks ago, Watt had a monster game against the Ravens, recording 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and one forced fumble in addition to disrupting Baltimore's potential game-winning 2-point conversion."

The Ravens need to force Roethlisberger to throw into tight windows against man coverage.

ESPN's Matt Bowen: "Think about the Steelers' passing game with Roethlisberger right now. There are a lot of quicks, unders and outside fade balls. Baltimore has to challenge that stuff, playing single-high man, mixing in some 2-Man and using a robber safety to lie in the weeds. That will allow the Ravens to cut those quick in-breakers and force Roethlisberger to be precise with the ball. And as we know, pressure is a big part of the defensive DNA with Wink Martindale in Baltimore, which can take advantage of Roethlisberger's deficient movement traits at this stage of his career."

The Ravens run defense has the edge over the Steelers running game in a key matchup.

The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker: "The rookie [Najee Harris] is coming off his best game (28 carries, 188 yards) as a pro on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers rely on Harris as their only significant running threat, and their offensive line did not give him much room to work for most of the season. The Ravens held him to 71 yards on 21 carries in Week 13, but he did gouge them on Pittsburgh's go-ahead scoring drive late in the fourth quarter. The Ravens still lead the league in rush defense. Their best interior lineman, Calais Campbell, returned to a full workload against the Rams."

Table inside Article
PunditPicksComments
ESPN6 of 11 panelists pick SteelersNA
Baltimore SunRavens 23, Steelers 17“Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song will dominate the headlines going in, but the Ravens will exploit advantages in the run game and on special teams to pull out a low-scoring alley fight.” — Childs Walker
USA Today5 of 7 panelists pick RavensNA
NFL.comRavens 23, Steelers 16“It felt like the Steelers won their playoff game Monday night. Now they turn around to face a decimated, feisty Ravens team that still has faint postseason hopes, too. Unlike Cleveland, Baltimore will remember to test Pittsburgh's run defense. Moral victories for everyone in the AFC North! (Except the Browns.)” — Gregg Rosenthal
NFL Network7 of 10 panelists pick RavensNA
Sporting NewsRavens 20, Steelers 17“With the near misses against the Packers and Rams in mind, Baltimore will finish off a familiar opponent at home to create good vibes for a more formidable season with Lamar Jackson in 2022.” — Vinnie Iyer
CBS Sports4 of 5 panelists pick Ravens“The Steelers are still alive for a playoff spot, but it's a long shot. The Ravens are done. But any time these two get together, it's a physical battle. They don't like each other. That's why I think the Ravens will find a way to pull this game out to end the Steelers' season, especially with the Steelers on a short week.” — Pete Prisco
Pro Football Talk3 of 3 panelists pick Ravens“T.J. Watt will break the sack record, and the Ravens will send Ben Roethlisberger out with a loss.” — Michael David Smith
Sports Illustrated3 of 4 panelists pick SteelersNA
FanSidedRavens 23, Steelers 20“The Steelers and Ravens are both staggering towards the end of the season. Let’s take the home team and a season split.” — Matt Vederame

Former Ravens Reflect on Iconic Hits on Roethlisberger

As mentioned above, the door was opened for Roethlisberger to become the Steelers' starting quarterback during a game against the Ravens in 2004.

Roethlisberger was called into action after cornerback Gary Baxter blitzed from the nickel position and hit Maddox on the right arm, forcing a fumble and knocking Maddox out of the game with a right elbow injury.

Knowing what he knows now, what would Baxter have said before the play that day?

"Let's not call that blitz," Baxter said jokingly on Glenn Clark Radio last month. "Steelers Nation was pissed at me. They were mad. I was like, 'Oh, my word, what's going on?' And so the next week, Ben Roethlisberger, he plays Miami. It was kind of a rainy, soggy game, so I made sure I paid attention to it and they won. I was like, 'OK, all right.' Then the next week they won, and the week after that they won. I was like, 'Oh, what have we created?'"

Roethlisberger won 14 starts in a row that season, including the playoffs, before losing to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Roethlisberger, selected 11th overall by the Steelers in 2004, obviously would've become the Steelers' starter sooner or later, but thanks to Baxter, it was sooner.

"Ben owes me a steak dinner," Baxter said. "I'm still waiting on that steak dinner."

Despite the intense rivalry between the Ravens and Steelers, Baxter said he hopes Ravens fans will pay tribute to Roethlisberger Sunday.

"I think that we should give him a standing ovation just as one of the great players that played the game and gave us a lot of great [Ravens-Steelers] memories," Baxter said. " … But at the end of the day, we want the win. We want our fans to go absolutely crazy, but as he's walking off it'll be very classy and speak highly of our city, the organization, just everyone … a standing ovation as he walks out."

Another famous hit on Roethlisberger was Bart Scott's unblocked sack in 2006. Scott said it wasn't his best hit (that's saved for fullbacks or pulling guards, not quarterbacks), but it is his most well-known because it was on such full display.

Justin Tucker Among Top 10 Most Clutch Players This Season

Any list of the most clutch players in the NFL has to include Justin Tucker, who came in at No. 5 on NFL.com's Nick Shook's list of the top 10 clutch players of the 2021 season.

"Let's see ... Who is the current owner of the NFL record for the longest made field goal? Ah, yes, it's Tucker, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer, who is the most feared and respected kicker in the NFL," Shook wrote. "If the Ravens need 3 points or less and have the ball, the most an opposing defense can hope to do is keep Baltimore out of field-goal range. Once they enter that window, Tucker is all but guaranteed to send the Ravens home with a victory.

"That field-goal window became frighteningly large earlier this year, when Tucker's crow-hop-fueled 66-yarder lifted Baltimore to a stunning win over Detroit at Ford Field. Tucker did it again against Minnesota, though he didn't need a crow hop to send the game-winning 36-yard shot through the uprights. Oh, he's also a perfect 6 for 6 from 50-plus yards this season, and owns the second-best field-goal percentage above expected at +11 percent. Just another year of greatness from the NFL's best kicker."

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