Things to Look for in the Ravens-Steelers Matchup

Whether you’re a fan or a television analyst, there’s one big question floating out there for this weekend’s Ravens-Steelers game: what are the keys to victory?

Everybody has a theory, but I wanted to go beyond speculation. So I compiled the stats from every Ravens-Steelers matchup from 2006 to present (11 games total). And let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: small-sample bias is an issue. And as such, the estimates aren’t nearly as precise (and might be biased as well) as we would like them. We know that going in, but it’s still interesting enough to investigate, even if the data are lacking. With the disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at some theories for the keys to victory.

Theory # 1: The team that runs the ball successfully will win.

It makes a whole lot of sense. Both the Steelers and Ravens are physical teams that like to establish the run and force the other team to give up on the run. But when you look at recent history, it doesn’t seem to be true at all.

In the past 11 games, six times the losing team has ran for more yards than the winning team. In the Steelers’ win in the second Ravens game last year, Baltimore rushed for 127 more yards than the Steelers, but Pittsburgh won the game.

Is it true? No.

Theory #2: The team that protects the ball while forcing turnovers will win.

This again makes a whole lot of sense on the face. After all, one of the key stats to look for with any team is turnover margin. Obviously turnovers are a key determinant in any game, but it hasn’t been that important in the Steelers-Ravens series.

In the last seven games, twice the team who wins the turnover battle has won the game. Twice the team who won the turnover battle has lost the game. And three times the turnover margin has been even. When you go back over the past 11 games, the data favor winning the turnover battle, but overall there have been five games where the team with the turnover margin advantage has won, two where they have lost and four more where that has been no edge.

Is it true? Somewhat, but it’s not a dominant factor.

Theory #3. If the Steelers can protect Ben Roethlisberger and sack Joe Flacco, they’ll win.

Again, it seems logical. After all, the Steelers have had some success getting after Joe Flacco, but there have been times when the Ravens pass rush has just destroyed the Steelers offense.

But when you look at the stats, it doesn’t seem to add up. Six times the team that has recorded more sacks has won, four times that team has lost, and once the number of sacks was even. At the extreme, the Ravens were sacked five times more than the Steelers in the first matchup in 2009, but the Ravens still won the game.

Is it true? It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference

Theory #4: The team that has a better passing attack will win.

Now we’re getting somewhere. In the past 11 games, the team with more passing yards has won 10 times. The only exception is the second Steelers-Ravens game in 2007. It seems that the team that gets its yards through the air has a distinct advantage.

Is it true? It sure seems like it.

Theory #5: The Steelers Need Big Plays To Win

This is the theory I floated earlier this week — something that Bill Walsh talks about in his book “Finding The Winning Edge.” If a team gets two more big plays than the opponent, it wins 80-85 percent of the time. Because of the nature of the Steelers’ defense, there has not been one game in the past 11 where the Ravens have had more big plays than the Steelers. But in the five games where the Steelers have had a +2 advantage, they have won every time. In six games where they have not, they are 1-5.

Is it true? It seems to be a pretty strong indicator.

I took a look at some other stats, too; feel free to make your own theories and decisions. And again, with the small-sample-issues caveat.

Here is a look at the differentials in multiple categories for the past 11 games. In all cases here positive values are when the Steelers had the edge and negative values are when the Ravens had the edge.
Game Winner Big Play Margin TOP TO Differential Total Yards
2010 Game 2 Steelers 2 8.25 0 19
2010 Game 1 Ravens 0 -1 1 -110
2009 Game 2 Steelers 2 -5 1 -37
2009 Game 1 Ravens 0 3.5 1 -95
2008 Game 3 Steelers 2 5 3 77
2008 Game 2 Steelers 2 3 0 109
2008 Game 1 Steelers 0 -2.5 0 -6
2007 Game 2 Ravens 1 -13 -2 -70
2007 Game 1 Steelers 2 12 3 187
2006 Game 2 Ravens 0 -10.75 0 -108
2006 Game 1 Ravens 0 -9.5 -3 -103
mean 0.55 1 -0.91 0.36 -12.45
stdev 0.52 1 8.1 1.8 100.57
correlation 0.77 0.62 0.51 0.81
Game First Downs Third Down Eff. Rush Yards Pass Yards Sacks
2010 Game 2 3 0 11 8 1
2010 Game 1 -8 14 -124 -1
2009 Game 2 -3 -127 90 0
2009 Game 1 -5 1 21 -116 5
2008 Game 3 -2 1 -21 98 -1
2008 Game 2 6 1 -21 130 -1
2008 Game 1 -5 0 -34 28 2
2007 Game 2 -7 0 -134 64 2
2007 Game 1 9 1 26 161 3
2006 Game 2 -7 0 -40 -68 -5
2006 Game 1 -2 0 -93 -10 -9
mean -1.91 0.44 -36.18 23.73 -0.36
stdev 5.61 0.53 57.8 96.35 3.88
correlation 0.66 0.35 0.17 0.74 0.31
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  • Bob Costas

    Bill Walsh’s theory is good but John Madden’s theory is better:

    Theory #6 (John Madden): The team that scores more points will win.

    Looking back 11 out of 11 times the team that has scored more points has won the game. So I think John Madden is on to something.

  • Anonymous

    Ben’s career began in 2004.
    Tomlin’s in 2007.
    Flacco’s and Harbaugh’s in 2008.

    So what is the significance of 2006 that made you start there?

    • JJ Cooper

      I wish I had a better answer, but it’s just where I ran out of time to keep compiling. I was compiling the stats by hand, and needed to start writing and stop compiling if I was going to get the post up in a timely manner.


    You might as well try the QB passer rating differential, a la CHFF, that includes key components from this analysis such as turnovers, big plays and passing yards.

    Bottom line, effective passing game could be the defining element once again. And I like Ben over Flacco all the time.


    Our Offense is almost as good as their Defense, we hold the advantage in the passing game slightly, and they are way better stopping the run. Of course the main difference is between our O line and their defensive front, a long day for our guys is in order if they are not able to continue to gel, as we saw towards the end of the regular season.

    Our true advantage is on the WR2 slot, so either Hines or Manny could have a great game against them. It was hard for me to honestly think about Hines as our number two guy, it seems that he has been passed by Manny as a more viable option for Ben towards the end of the season. Perhaps that is just my twisted point of view.

    Another option that we do not use that often but could be troublesome for the Ravens are passes to our RB’s. This will be tough, is as expected we will ask the RB’s to contribute heavily on pass protection duties, but a quick chip on Suggs and then slide out for a screen could do wonders.

    Our Defense is WAY better than their attack on every aspect of the game.

    Surprisingly, their O line is as inept as ours in pass protection, so there is that, for the argument of devoting top draft picks to the big uglies.

    Our main concerns should be their WR3 (Housh?) and Ray Rice…on the passing game…so Gay will be hard pressed to step up, and Timmons should be named a lot…hopefully we can avoid having Farrior on Rice or that could be ugly in the open space.

    Special teams, reflected in the way field position, is at their favor, so we will have to earn every single yard with Ben and the O.

    After all, I am still confident walking into the game. Of course injuries, fumble luck or weather issues can affect this thing, but we could expect another thriller between these two heavyweights.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    JJ, I’ve got some good news and bad news for you. The good news is that at about noon today, Colin Cowerd on ESPN Radio extensively quoted your Fanhouse piece on explosive plays. The bad news is that he didn’t cite you (or anyone) as a source. I guess theft is the sincerest form of flattery.