It’s week 13 of the NFL season and the 4-7 Washington Football Team will be facing the 11-0 Steelers team on the road at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA on Monday. Although Washington is currently 2nd place in division rankings, a win this week (and a loss for the Giants) would propel the team to the division lead.
The Steelers look like a very complete team. They are currently ranked 2nd in overall DVOA by Football Outsiders, behind only the New Orleans Saints. More specifically, they are ranked 1st in defensive DVOA, 15th in offensive DVOA, and 12th in special teams DVOA. The Steelers defense looks to be truly elite this year, with the highest pass rush win rate in the NFL and no major weaknesses at any level of the defense. The offense has looked a bit less explosive than in years past, with more of a focus on quick, short passes than shots deep downfield and no established stars at the skill positions (though rookie WR Chase Claypool is having a breakout year).
To learn more about these and other issues, I asked Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain five questions about the state of the Steelers and what to look for in this game.
1) Successful teams have an identity and it seems to me that over the last few years, the Steelers have changed their identity from a high-scoring, offensive team focused around a few star skill-position players (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown) to a physical, defensive team focused on forcing turnovers and spreading the ball around on offense. How did the Steelers go about this transformation and do you think it’s a better formula for long-term success?
The Steelers’ defense is definitely what the team hangs their hat on, and it is their ability for the big play. Maybe it is sacking the QB or creating turnovers, Mike Tomlin and company have built a very good complementary team. Meaning, what the Steelers do well defensively meshes well with what they typically do offensively. While the Steelers defense gets after the QB better than any other team in the NFL, the Steelers have not surrendered a sack of Ben Roethlisberger since Week 8. The Steelers also have been better at protecting the football, not putting their defense in bad situations. You start to realize with a defense this good, sometimes you don’t have to take the risk, and a punt isn’t such a bad play. All around, the Steelers are a very complete team from top to bottom, and I think this team is more complete than the ones you mentioned in previous years.
2) The Steelers passing offense seems to be focused more this year on short, quick passes that spread the field horizontally, as opposed to previous years where it was known for a more vertical attack. What do you think motivated this change and how do you think the passing offense is performing so far?
To me this is simple. It’s all about their weapons. The Steelers might possess the deepest arsenal in the passing game in the NFL. Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, James Washington and Eric Ebron, not to mention Ray-Ray McCloud on occasion, are nightmares to cover. To stop the Steelers you have to have a tremendous secondary that is deep enough to run with these Steelers receivers on every play. Pittsburgh has no problem throwing the ball 50 times if it means they move the ball and win the game. They’ll do it until the opposition stops it.
[Editor’s note: I can’t help but think at least part of the reason for the switch to quick passing is an effort to protect QB Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers playoff hopes were essentially ended last year after he got injured and he’s seemed more injury prone in recent years. The Steelers have also chosen to avoid investing significant resources in the QB position behind him, so they have little recourse if he does get hurt.]
3) What do you think have been the biggest factors behind the Steelers undefeated season so far? Are there any teams that scare you?
The Steelers haven’t had a game where they completely fell apart, and that is what has gotten them in trouble in the past. Games where Roethlisberger is off and turns it over a ton, games where the defense surrenders big plays. Sure, there have been moments, but never for an entire game. They have been extremely consistent in this regard, but in other areas they are horribly inconsistent. The offense will go through lulls where they have several three-and-outs and are giving the ball right back to the opposition. These moments are when teams like the Packers or Chiefs, who have a high powered offense and can score quick, scare you. You have to worry about out-scoring opponents. Luckily, with the Steelers’ defense they should be in every game they play...it just comes down to the offense making enough plays to win.
4) Who are two Steelers players Washington fans might not know about, but will probably be important in this game?
With the loss of Bud Dupree, keep an eye on rookie pass rusher Alex Highsmith. Highsmith has played sparingly in 2020, and hasn’t been bad. This will be his first start of his young career, and fans are excited to see what he can do, even though he won’t be as consistent and dynamic as Dupree. As for the offensive side of the ball, fans should really watch out for the developing connection between Roethlisberger and Chase Claypool. I know almost everyone knows the rookie receiver by now, but the two have a pretty good connection, and Claypool is a threat to do it all. Everything from a deep threat to running the ball.
5) How should Washington go about gameplanning to win this matchup on both sides of the ball?
On offense you need to put together time consuming drives which end in touchdowns, not field goals. Easier said than done, but doing this you will need to establish the run. The Steelers’ defense thrives on making a team one dimensional, putting them in obvious passing downs and then getting after the quarterback. You need to avoid those situations, so getting the run going early is critical to success.
On defense, it is almost to the point where it isn’t wise to send pressure at Roethlisberger. He gets rid of the ball so fast, very few ever get home. Sit back and keep the play in front of you. The Steelers don’t run the ball much, and they also will pick and choose when they take their shots. Force the team to run against a light box, and play coverage to try and slow down the high powered attack. But again, you have to have a secondary deep enough to cover all the Steelers’ weapons when they go into their 4-5 WR sets. Not an easy task.
As of right now, Vegas has Pittsburgh as 7 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Pittsburgh wins by more than 7 points
Pittsburgh wins by 7 points or less or it’s a tie
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 43.5 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
44 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 44 total points are scored (both sides combined)
Which best describes how you feel about the Washington Football Team right now?
This poll is closed
I have confidence that the team has turned the corner and has the right staff in place to succeed
I’m not confident in the team right now, but will be if we beat the Steelers
I’m not confident in the team right now, but will be if we beat several of the good teams (Steelers, 49ers, Seahawks) remaining on our schedule
I’m not confident in the team and I’m unlikely to be confident without dramatic change (new owner, new coaching staff, etc) in the offseason