The way the Ravens beat the Steelers in Week 16 shows what effective game planning can do when you're the perceived underdog. In pointing that out, I don't necessarily mean that Cincinnati should do what head coach John Harbaugh did in Week 16 nor that this is the only way to stop Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Heath Miller and DeAngelo Williams.
I know the Bengals also gameplan for the Steelers, but in games against common opponents, it usually looks like Cincinnati is not ready. I believe this year our fate will change though, because of what I saw in Baltimore's 20-17 win.
First of all, Harbaugh wanted Pittsburgh to run, he dared them to run over them playing his two safeties way deep, even in clear running situations with 22 personnel. He did not want to get beaten over the top by Brown, especially. This is not something I think he would have done had Le'Veon Bell played.
This is the Steelers' second play of the game, on 2nd and 1 and after Williams had gained 9 yards on the ground. Just watch Ravens' safety Kendrick Lewis.
You would think the Steelers could just run past the Ravens' defense all game long, but this is just a move in the larger scheme. Big Ben loves the home run play, he loves to throw deep, just like his former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in Arizona. By daring them to run or take the underneath throws, the Ravens got Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense out of their comfort zone.
As you can see here, Pittsburgh gained 30 yards on the ground on the very next play. Even with a clear running formation the two safeties play deep 20 or more yards off the line of scrimmage.
The Ravens stuck to their game plan, not wanting Brown to beat them on a play action fake. The best wide receiver in football finished the game with 7 catches for just 61 yards, so I believe Baltimore accomplished their goal.
On the second drive you can see again how the Ravens were not concerned at all about Pittsburgh running the football, staying patient and disciplined in their roles.
Even when Pittsburgh went heavy with their fullback and their blocking tight end, number 89 Matt Spaeth, in the line, Baltimore stayed in their toes.
DeAngelo Williams rushed for over 80 yards in the first half, and he was doing a pretty good job, but Big Ben and the Steelers offense were not comfortable, and paid the price later on, which is what Baltimore wanted in first place.
Pittsburgh eventually found a big play here and there, like this throw to Antonio Brown on the corner route. This is just a great effort by the Steelers' wide receiver, who makes it look easy.
This allowed Pittsburgh to run even more, as they did on the next play when DeAngelo Williams rushed for a 11-yard gain.
This draw play was very effective because the safeties were so far off the line of scrimmage to prevent the deep throws. Pittsburgh continued to run the football and got eventually to the red zone at ease, and even managed to score on a rub play to Antonio Brown, but it was reviewed and ruled an incompletion instead. It was one of the few times where a safety was not there to help out with Brown, and that changed a couple of plays later.
This was how the Ravens defended the Steelers' tandem formations, forcing Pittsburgh to kick a field goal this time.
Baltimore nevertheless stuck to their plan and let Roethlisberger and company lose patience and get anxious. On their next drive in the second quarter he is almost picked on a horrible pass to his fullback. He wanted the home run but Brown was pretty well covered.
Fullback Will Johnson was wide open on the far side, but couldn't overcome Roethlisberger's bad throw. Was it because Big Ben was nervous or anxious? The Ravens did not let him find a rhythm and it is clear he was off all game long. Baltimore's defense also made some good plays, in this one they tackled Williams for a loss of 4 yards on 2nd & 7, even though they did not bring extra pressure to the line.
This drive ended on a deep throw to Brown when the safety was able to break up the pass. Thus far, Harbaugh's strategy was working well. The Steelers started to get really impatient and Big Ben got greedy on this throw, trying to force a pass up the middle to Heath Miller into triple coverage.
They had already gained 20 yards on two short throws and had a lot of time remaining in the quarter. Look at where Roethlisberger's open receivers are and where he put that ball in instead. He had a clean pocket all the way, just a bad mistake forced by his anxiousness. Baltimore went on to score a field goal and eat a huge chunk of clock as well, making it a two-score game, 13-3. This is one of the key plays to the game, and one of the better pieces of evidence of the Ravens' plan, too.
Pittsburgh adjusted in the second half, found rhythm on short passes and underneath routes and eventually managed a deep ball, with Martavis Bryant getting the defensive pass interference on Jimmy Smith and thank you, because it would have been a touchdown otherwise.
The Steelers finally landed in the end zone after another Ravens penalty, when Brown was tackled by the safety before even trying to make a play on the football - this happened in the Bengals' game as well when Will Hill tackled Marvin Jones before catching the ball on the side. Roethlisberger had other options on the play, but manipulates the safety with his eyes and goes for Brown. He is a little bit late because his first read appears to be Bryant. That is why Brown has to wait for the football and the safety can get there and "make the play".
You start to see a tendency here. This lack of rhythm cost the Steelers later on, when Roethlisberger missed a wide open Miller up the middle on a deep throw. He was off for the most part.
On the following play, on 3rd and 4 he waited for Bryant to get open on a slant route even though he had much better options, holding the football forever and is sacked. Pittsburgh had to punt.
The Ravens managed to sack Roethlisberger three times despite only rushing three or four players. This time was a combination of bad offense and a great job by their cornerback. Just look how clean the pocket was when he saw Brown - not open anymore on the crossing route -, and remember it is 3rd and 4 and the score is only 13-10; they just needed to move the chains.
The Ravens gambled all the way but it worked. Williams only rushed for 17 yards in the second half, which is weird because the Steelers were only 3 down at that point and had plenty of time left. The former Panthers running back was excellent in the first half but did not get many carries after, even when Pittsburgh was pinned down their own territory and had good looks.
This is a drive that ended up badly, because the Steelers played it like they were 24 points behind instead of just three. Roethlisberger had a clean pocket and made a play here. He wanted a deep throw again, when the Ravens were happy to give them a first down underneath.
The Ravens got the ball back and scored two plays later on a really bad throw from Roethlisberger, who got picked trying to avoid a late blitz. Now all the hurry by Pittsburgh finally cost them and at that point they had to overcome 10 instead of three points and in shorter time.
When the Steelers took advantage of a tired Ravens' defense that was jogging back to the line of scrimmage on some plays, they almost lost the game on another risky decision by their offense, which went empty backfield on 1st and goal from the one yard line. This saved them.
That neutral zone infraction nullified the pick six and Pittsburgh, after learning the hard way run it in afterwards instead. Why wouldn't they run it in the first place? I firmly believe for all the reasons mentioned above.
The Steelers had another shot to come back and win the game later, getting the football with 2:55 to play and one timeout and the two-minute conversion. They started really well, with two quick routes underneath gaining 22 yards against the Ravens' soft zone. A Courtney Upshaw sack and a bad effort by their offensive line in a screen pass on 2nd and 18 sealed the deal though.
Can this work again? Not necessarily, but it shows how a little game planning can mentally affect the other team. John Harbaugh's scheme managed to stop the "best offense in football" by taking away what they like the most, and the Steelers were unable to adjust even after starting well.
Should the Bengals do this? Their secondary is a bit depleted, so maybe they'd like to blitz a little bit more than they have (least in the NFL), but their focus must be on stopping Brown, Martavis Bryant and the deep ball and trust their front four to get home.
It is not easy and you need Roethlisberger to be a bit off as well, but the Steelers are beatable as the Ravens showed a few weeks ago, and Cincinnati is well equipped to send them home on Saturday.