There were dark days for the Ravens’ offense late last season. Lamar Jackson was sidelined indefinitely by injury. Their top wide receivers weren’t healthy. Touchdowns were scarce. One player found “Fire Greg Roman” messages around the facility.
And still the franchise’s most frustrating week might pale in comparison to the hellscape the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense has found itself in. There was the quickly discredited story about offensive coordinator Matt Canada defending himself on “burner” social media accounts. There was an allegation from Canada that CBS commentator Spero Dedes “misconstrued” pregame remarks about the offense’s inability to come back from big deficits.
And, oh yeah, there’s the bone bruise that starting quarterback Kenny Pickett will try to play through Sunday. As if one of the NFL’s worst offenses and one of its least efficient quarterbacks needed more problems.
“I’m definitely expecting Kenny,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday, “and we’ll be ready for [backup Mitch Trubisky] if he happens to be out there, as well.”
The Ravens (3-1) found ways to win games last season despite their turmoil. The Steelers (2-2) could, too. Here’s what to watch in the teams’ Week 5 matchup in Pittsburgh.
1. Zay Flowers was the Ravens’ top-rated wide receiver prospect in the 2023 draft class, coach John Harbaugh said in April. He might’ve been Mike Tomlin’s favorite, too.
The Steelers coach, whose son Dino played wide receiver at Boston College with Flowers last year, raved about the rookie for over a minute at his Tuesday news conference.
“Zay Flowers, can’t say enough about him,” Tomlin told local reporters. “His tangible talents are one thing, and those are obvious. He’s got really good speed, short-area burst, change of direction and body control and those things. But [what] I quickly understood about him from watching him at BC … the interesting component of his calling card is the fearlessness in his play. He is fearless. He runs into dark places at full speed. He’s combative in his play.
“That’s probably the platform that provides him an opportunity to make the type of plays that he makes. He will not be intimidated. He is combative and competitive in all circumstances. Quite honestly, I’ve never seen him flinch, and I’ve watched a lot of football of that young man.”
With offensive coordinator Todd Monken looking for more explosiveness from the Ravens’ passing attack, Flowers could be in line for another impactful game. The Steelers’ primary outside cornerbacks, Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson, have both struggled in coverage this season.
Peterson, who was expected to play primarily in the slot, had an interception in Week 3 against the Las Vegas Raiders but allowed 88 yards and a touchdown, and last week gave up 94 yards and two touchdowns against the Houston Texans. Wallace had two interceptions against the Raiders but gave up 63 yards and a touchdown, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and another 72 yards against Houston.
2. Steelers wide receiver Calvin Austin III missed his rookie year with a foot injury. Now comes a game he said he has circled. All because of a punter.
In the fourth round of last year’s draft, the Ravens had six picks. With their first three, they took offensive tackle Daniel Faale, cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis and tight end Charlie Kolar. With their next selection, No. 130 overall, they drafted punter Jordan Stout. NBC Sports reporter Peter King, who was embedded in the Ravens’ war room, reported that team officials hoped Austin, a shifty wide receiver from Memphis, would still be available at No. 139 overall.
He only made it to No. 138; Pittsburgh picked Austin before the Ravens could. General manager Eric DeCosta took tight end Isaiah Likely instead. One year later, Austin had strong feelings about the apparent snubbing.
“Man, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been thinking about that,” Austin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June. “It’s wild. It’s one of those things where you know, obviously, I’m blessed and I’m just so 100% glad that I came here. I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t been on my mind since the draft, since that came out.”
He added: “It’s personal. But that will all be settled out, Lord willing, this year and the times we see them. I just have it circled. Crazy. A punter, huh?”
Austin has been one of the Steelers’ lone bright spots on offense this year. He has 12 catches on 21 targets for 143 yards, second most on the team, and one touchdown.
3. Austin isn’t the only one with a point to prove. On the other sideline Sunday will be Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen.
On Wednesday, he recalled Tomlin yelling at him during a game his rookie year in Pittsburgh. According to Queen, Tomlin told him, “You’re not supposed to be there. You’re not one of them.”
“So every time I play them, it’s something personal,” Queen said. He added: “I don’t care if he was joking. I don’t care if he was serious. At the end of the day, I’m on your sideline and you’re telling me I’m not a Raven. It’s kind of disrespectful.”
Queen is 1-5 against the Steelers in his career, but he had an interception against Trubisky in his one win, a 16-14 victory at Acrisure Stadium last year. In the final minute of the first half, Queen stepped in front of a pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth for a leaping red-zone pick.
If Pickett starts Sunday, Queen might have to look elsewhere for impact plays. The 2022 first-round pick threw just four passes that went beyond the line of scrimmage and over the middle of the field last week against Houston, according to NGS.
With Queen and Roquan Smith, one of Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated inside linebackers in coverage, patrolling the Ravens’ middle third, Pickett could again look elsewhere.
4. The Steelers’ offense found a winning formula in their Week 17 comeback last season. It just happened to be a once-every-few-decades formula.
Pittsburgh ran 41 times for 198 yards in its 16-13 win on New Year’s Day at M&T Bank Stadium, the most the Ravens have allowed in the series since a 1997 home loss. Steelers running back Jerome Bettis (137 rushing yards) and quarterback Kordell Stewart (78 yards) led the way that day for a rushing offense that rolled up 214 yards overall.
In January, it was running backs Najee Harris (111 yards) and Jaylen Warren (76 yards) who spearheaded a surprisingly effective ground game. No other opponent rushed for more than 145 yards against the Ravens last season.
The odds of a repeat performance Sunday are slim. Despite investing in its offensive line this offseason, Pittsburgh is averaging 3.6 yards per carry (tied for 25th in the NFL) and ranks No. 31 in rushing offense DVOA, according to FTN. The Ravens, meanwhile, are allowing 3.8 yards per carry (tied for seventh in the NFL) and rank sixth in run defense DVOA.
Queen said Wednesday that the Ravens’ focus was on stopping Harris, who’s averaging a career-high 4.3 yards per carry. “Obviously, when he goes, their team goes, and when you shut him down, their team shuts down,” he said.
5. The Ravens can extend one of the NFL’s most ignominious streaks.
In Canada’s two-plus seasons as Steelers offensive coordinator, a span of 39 games that includes a 2021 playoff game, Pittsburgh has never finished a game with at least 400 yards. Over that same stretch, the Ravens have reached 400 yards 10 times and even hit 500 yards twice.
The Steelers haven’t come close to breaking through this year, either. They finished with 255 yards or fewer in three of their first four games, and had 333 against the Raiders, one of the NFL’s worst defenses.