Every Baltimore-Pittsburgh game is a rock fight, a 15-round slugfest. It might be the best rivalry in the NFL today. So it was no surprise that Sunday’s match went down to the wire, a 28-24 escape for the Steelers.
But can either team feel great about its offense right now?
Before we get into the nuts, bolts, and the reasons for concern, we’ll concede that this game had some box-score juice. Four of Pittsburgh’s five primary skill players had solid games — only an injured Diontae Johnson was quiet. J.K. Dobbins (15-113-0) and Gus Edwards (16-87-1) were snappy on the ground. Pittsburgh’s defense was menacing, physical, intimidating.
But quarterbacks are the driver of offenses, and neither Lamar Jackson nor Ben Roethlisberger covered himself in glory Sunday.
Warning signs appear for both QBs in Steelers/Ravens
Start with Jackson, who had one of the messiest starts of his career. He threw two interceptions — one of them a gift pick-six to the Steelers — and also lost two fumbles, though the second one came at the end of a fourth-down rush that fell short of the sticks. No one will fault him for the extra effort on a do-or-die play, but Jackson nonetheless struggled with his accuracy and decision-making all afternoon. He wasn’t close to his 2019 MVP form.
Even Jackson’s running was somewhat muted — a whopping 16 carries only managed 65 yards (he did have a touchdown run wiped out by a holding penalty). And the Steelers probably gave him the most physical game he’s had as a pro.
Baltimore still looks like a playoff lock at 5-2, but it was strange to see the Ravens this disjointed after a bye week. And make no mistake, there’s some frustration in the locker room. Marquise Brown had just two targets (one of them a short touchdown) and isn’t thrilled about his role.
Here’s where we’d embed the Brown tweet from after the game, but it’s since been deleted. About 30 minutes after the match finished, Brown’s verified Twitter account wondered: “What’s the point of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!).” I’m not here to critique Brown for the comment; I actually agree with his observation.
And I certainly understand the frustration; Brown seems to get open most weeks, but Jackson has missed him a handful of times in previous games. Mark Andrews (3-32-0, six targets) has also been a mild disappointment.
Baltimore OC Greg Roman will continue to use Jackson proactively as a runner, but Baltimore can’t be happy at the physical punishment the QB received Sunday. This wasn’t a day filled with sliding and ducking out of bounds. Jackson’s work was often in the trenches, not to mention the hits he absorbed in the pocket. Pittsburgh sacked him four times against a modest 28 pass attempts. More hits could be on the way, with Baltimore star OT Ronnie Staley out for the year.
At least the absence of Mark Ingram — likely to be multiple weeks — tidied up the Ravens backfield. Dobbins had a smash game in his first extensive action, the only high-profile rookie back who clicked in the early slate. Edwards is a pounding interior runner who regularly breaks through first contact. They’re fun to watch, and playable if this rushing game stays at this width.
Harbaugh and Roman are excellent coaches, and the Baltimore schedule is a daisy in December (start with the Cowboys, Week 13). But the November gauntlet could be a meat grinder — Indianapolis, New England (Bill Belichick still matters), Tennessee, the Pittsburgh rematch. Nothing will be free against that slate.
It might sound silly to preach understanding on the Pittsburgh sideline — after all, these guys are 7-0, the NFL’s only undefeated team. The defense looks like the AFC’s best, and the Steelers own the answer key when it comes to drafting receivers. There’s so much to like here.
But does Roethlisberger look crisp to you? He hasn’t been awful, but this hasn’t been peak Roethlisberger, either. He looks like a 38-year-old quarterback.
Roethlisberger scored a win last week at Tennessee despite a meager 5.5 YPA. Sunday was the same story — Pittsburgh wins, despite modest passing success (5.7 YPA). Big Ben at least protected the ball (no turnovers) and was only sacked twice, but you’re living right when you sneak a win despite a 236-yard deficit in total offense. The pick-six skews the game flow, but Baltimore still ran 29 more snaps in this game.
Perhaps you saw Roethlisberger rubbing his elbow on the sideline. The Steelers are doing all they can to limit his pocket exposure — lots of short drops, lots of defined, quick throws — and the big plays haven’t been common lately. Only one of Sunday’s completions went for over 20 yards.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say Pittsburgh is hiding Roethlisberger. But are they managing him, or asking him to manage the game? That feels right. At least the Pittsburgh schedule looks fun — Dallas, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville are next up on the runaway, about as favorable as it gets.
Big-name rookie backs haven’t clicked yet
I don’t want to act like the rookie running-back class has been a total bust. Dobbins, as mentioned above, had a strong day. Zack Moss was effective (14-81-2) in Buffalo’s uneven afternoon, sneaking past a New England defense that’s down all sorts of personnel. If you pushed play with those guys, you’ll sleep well tonight.
But the big tickets from the 2020 backfield class continue to disappoint. Looking at you, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D’Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor.
The Taylor slog is the biggest shocker. The Colts have a super offensive line and Frank Reich is a coach we like. And the Week 8 matchup against Detroit was favorable, a mediocre run-stopping opponent. Alas, Taylor had just 22 yards on 11 carries. Meanwhile, Jordan Wilkins (20-89-1) moved the pile on the ground, and Nyheim Hines had two nifty touchdown catches.
How soon is now, Jonathan Taylor? Maybe it’s going to take a while. For one thing, Taylor might not be 100 percent. And just as importantly, the Colts prefer a wide usage tree, at every skill position; Reich is the guy ordering all the bagels, all the donuts. One of everything, please.
CEH has been effective in some games this year, but he was back to MEH in the romp over the hapless Jets (nine touches, 31 yards). His longest run was four yards. To be fair, the Jets defense often prioritizes the run over the pass, and Patrick Mahomes (five touchdowns) threw over them all day. And when the game got out of hand, Andy Reid liberally used his bench.
Swift has to win over his coaching staff more than anything. He only received nine touches Sunday, though they were for just 23 total yards. Adrian Peterson had his usual ineffective day — five carries, seven yards — while Kerryon Johnson stole a touchdown catch. I’m still willing to bet on Swift long-term. Not a bad trade target, as those deadlines close in.
• Apparently I overestimated how much vengeance there is in Le’Veon Bell. He was not a big factor against the Jets. An underreported story in Kansas City: the offensive line hasn't been great.
• Although the Chiefs found a way to target 11 different players, it was fun to see Mecole Hardman get into the regular rotation (7-96-1, nine targets). It's almost unfair for an offense to have this much team speed.
Hardman won't fully be in the Circle of Trust until we see him do this two games in a row, given how Reid's usage can vary significantly from week to week. And things obviously get complicated whenever Sammy Watkins returns. But at least you see the trust building, and you see Hardman's technical skills developing. Keep in mind, when Hardman committed to Georgia, he considered himself more of a defensive back than a receiver. Most of his success last year came through sheer athleticism.
• In the standings, the Raiders beat the Browns in Week 8. But the wind was the real winner, nullifying the deep passing game and turning this match into 1975 football. Baker Mayfield missed some throws on the high side, but there were several drops and mistakes from his offense. Depending on how you score things, Jarvis Landry had between 2-5 drops (along with one outstanding catch). Cleveland held the ball just under 23 minutes, mostly because the Browns defense was trampled by Vegas’s power running game.
• Give Nelson Agholor another shot; he’s the NFL’s leader with 19.5 YPC, but his downfield game didn’t suit the Cleveland weather. Agholor only saw two targets; he was thoroughly covered on one, and the other one was an easy pick that the Browns dropped.
• Bill Belichick did a MacGyver job, almost stealing a win at Buffalo. But the Patriots didn’t trust Cam Newton in the game plan; on third and long, the team often called for give-up runs or conservative passing short of the sticks. There was also a fourth-and-short punt from plus territory. Ironically, it was Newton’s late-game fumble that secured the defeat, when the Patriots already were in field-goal range for a tie, and closing in on a winning touchdown. It’s starting to look like Newton could be a one-and-done Patriot.
• At least the Patriots have found something with Jakobi Meyers, who has 118 receiving yards the last two weeks. He also snagged a two-point conversion Sunday. Those aren’t Randy Moss numbers, but New England will take what it can get. It makes you wonder why Meyers wasn't playing much in the first five games; we're not talking about the Greatest Show on Turf here. All of New England's primary wideouts Sunday were undrafted free agents.
• Maybe Justin Herbert would go No. 1 overall if the NFL redrafted the 2020 class (he makes 3-4 “oh my god” throws every week), but Joe Burrow would be considered at No. 1, and would fall no later than No. 2. He’s the genuine article. Despite a patchwork offensive line (that’s probably substandard when in full health), Burrow moves the ball almost every week and has covered every game but one. I’d ride with him anytime.
• Say this for the Dolphins, they play their butts off for Brian Flores. He’s rebuilt that culture in the blink of an eye. Tua Tagovailoa was mostly hidden Sunday; the Dolphins defense confused Jared Goff (5.8 YPA, four turnovers) and won the game on that side of the ball. Miami had two return touchdowns (one on defense, one on special teams), which is how you win despite just eight first downs and 145 yards of offense (the Rams had 31 and 471, respectively). Los Angeles gets a bye at a good time; Seattle, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, and Arizona call after that.
• Are we sure Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy? Are we sure he’s good? Jimmy G. was erratic for three quarters at Seattle —a historically bad pass defense — and then hobbled to the locker room. Nick Mullens piled up 238 yards and two touchdowns in garbage time, production that’s hard to take at face value. But you wonder if Kyle Shanahan is tempted to try something new, even if it’s merely a way to keep a dinged Garoppolo out of harm’s way.
• Mike Zimmer finally got the game he wanted; 30 Dalvin Cook rushing attempts, 14 Kirk Cousins passes. Of course Cook made it easy with 163 rushing yards and three touchdowns; he also had a 50-yard touchdown catch and scamper, the only stat-padding Cousins got all day. Maybe Minnesota’s no-show against Atlanta was misleading; the Vikings did give Seattle all it could handle the previous week. The schedule opens up nicely: Lions, Bears, Cowboys, Panthers, Jaguars.
• Corey Davis is in the catbird seat; every Tennessee opponent is petrified of A.J. Brown, and Davis gets a playable market share every week. But this is a case where the secondary target needs the alpha; if Brown gets hurt again, I suspect opponents would be able to contain Davis.
• Scouting is hard, even when a player is in your own building. The Lions spent a year with Travis Fulgham and weren't impressed. Green Bay kicked the tires but cut him this summer. Even the Eagles cut Fulgham before this year, with the eye of stashing him on the practice squad. He's been Philly's most consistent skill player for a month, capable of winning on the outside and commanding a healthy market share. I don't care who comes back for the Eagles, Fulgham seems here to stay.
• I don't have much to give you on the Cowboys. They've had so many injuries and their season basically ended when Dak Prescott got hurt. They've scored one touchdown in their past 12 quarters. Somehow Dallas is 0-8 against the spread, which is really hard to do.
• Nick Foles probably played just well enough to keep his job. But 6.6 YPA isn’t good enough, and if you factor in the five sacks, Chicago gained just 5.06 yards per dropback. I suspect we could see Mitch Trubisky start again this year.