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Four keys for the Washington Football Team against the Steelers

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Washington travels this week to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in the traditional Week 13 Monday afternoon football game, held at 5:00 p.m. EST. The Steelers are undefeated and have been called by some the worst 11-0 team in history. The Washington team currently has good odds of winning the NFC East, and, at 4-7, has been called by some the worst potential division winner in history.

Despite the vast gulf in win-loss records, there are a surprising number of similarities between these two teams, but, of course, many differences. Let’s look at four keys that Washington will need to focus on during Monday’s game.

Let me start by throwing out some seemingly random stats, and then I’ll try to tie them together later.

Per Football Today:

  • In 2020, Pittsburgh has run the ball 285 times while passing 435 times, which means they’ve thrown the 4th most passes in the league this season.
  • Their 60.4 : 39.6 pass:run ratio is 8th most pass-heavy in the NFL.

Per Team Rankings:

  • At 3.8 yards per attempt, Pittsburgh is tied for the 3rd-lowest rushing productivity per rush in the NFL.
  • At 6.3 yards per attempt, Pittsburgh is 9th-lowest in productivity per pass in the NFL.
  • At 720, the Steelers have run the 7th most offensive plays in the NFL in 2020.
  • At 17.1, Pitt has the #1 defense as measured by points per game.
  • At 28.8, Pitt has the #8 offense ranked by points per game.
  • Pittsburgh is #1 in sacks per game.
  • The Steelers rank 8th in rushing yards allowed per game.
  • The Steelers average 1 giveaway per game on offense and 2.1 takeaways per game on defense.
  • Pittsburgh’s +1.1 turnover differential per game is the best in the NFL.

Per Football Outsiders:

  • The average starting line of scrimmage (per drive) for the Steelers is the 31.78 yard line, which is 2nd best in the NFL in 2020.
  • Pittsburgh ranks 11th in points per drive.

Per Pro Football Reference:

  • Big Ben ranks 3rd lowest in air yards per attempt at 3.1. Our own Alex Smith ranks 1st (or is it last?) in this metric, at a mere 2.7 air yards per pass attempt.
  • Ben is completing passes at the highest rate of his career at 67.5% in 2020.

Per Next Gen Stats:

  • Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has the quickest release of any passer in the NFL this year, releasing the football 2.29 seconds after the snap. (Interesting note: Dwayne Haskins is ranked 3rd fastest; Alex Smith 17th).

Key No. 1 - Play press coverage on defense & tackle well

One of the most talked about story lines of 2020 with regard to Pittsburgh is the change in Ben Roethlisberger from the original version of Carson Wentz as a guy who constantly looked to extend plays to the fastest gun in the game. Watch a bit of the most recent Ravens game and you’ll see a Ben Roesthlisberger you’ve never seen before if you haven’t seen him play since before his 2019 injury. This is a different guy. He is throwing quick timing passes, and throwing a lot of them.

Interestingly, the Steelers are not running the ball much and aren’t very productive when they do. This is an offense predicated on throwing the ball 40 times per game, basically utilizing a blazing fast short passing game in lieu of running the ball. Again, this is not a productive offense on a yards-per-play basis, even in the passing game. They rely on a combination of their defense giving them short fields along with stringing together some sustained drives to score.

Look at the reception totals for the playmakers on the Steelers offense:

  • JuJu Smith-Schuster 66-572 yards
  • Diontae Johnson 57-583 yards
  • Chase Claypool 45-611 yards
  • James Washington 23-263 yards
  • Eric Ebron 42-413 yards
  • James Conner 25-145 yards

There’s no way to focus on a single receiver, tight end or back and take away Ben’s “favorite weapon”. He’s spreading the ball efficiently to a wide range of targets, though the bulk of the passes go to wide receivers.

The speed at which Ben is getting rid of the ball effectively neuters a pass rush; even a bad offensive line can hold up for the time that Ben is taking to release the ball, and the Steelers don’t have a bad offensive line.

This is a timing based passing game and Ben is making pre-snap decisions based on alignment and matchups. The defensive secondary needs to be challenging the Pittsburgh pass catchers — especially the wide receivers — at the line of scrimmage. Without a strong run threat, the Washington defense can probably play with 2 linebackers and an extra defensive back most of the time, relying on the front 4 to control the run game when the Steelers choose to employ it.

I don’t think there’s as much danger of Pittsburgh exploiting this as there usually would be. Pitt is on a short week and Ben didn’t practice at all this week. Offensively, I don’t think they’ll throw any wrinkles into the game plan — I think Tomlin will run the offense that they’ve been running for the past month, meaning that the extra few days that the WFT coaches have had to watch film and game-plan will pay dividends — especially for our defense.

The DBs need to be jamming receivers on their release, and sticking close to them as they begin their routes. They’ll need good play from (probably) a single high safety to guard against the deep ball if a receiver beats the initial jam and starts to break free. When Steelers receivers catch the ball (usually very close to the line of scrimmage) the Washington defense needs to make a clean tackle right after the catch.

Disrupt the timing and limit the gains on completions. Force the Steelers into frequent 3rd down situations and force Ben to make great decisions on each of them in order to keep the drive alive.

Key No. 2 - Win the line of scrimmage, especially on offense

The Steelers have a fierce pass rush, but that may be somewhat affected by the loss of Bud Dupree, who tore his ACL in Wednesday’s game against Baltimore. His backup, Alex Highsmith, is a 3rd round rookie who is expected to play well. The Steelers have a highly rated rushing defense as well.

However, I believe that Washington’s two running backs, Gibson and McKissic, can have success against the Steeler defense as they both have explosiveness and cut back abilities, which should work well against a defense that’s playing fast. It won’t work, however, if the line of scrimmage is being pushed back.

To succeed on offense, the Football Team is going to have to employ the same quick-play, timing-based pass attack that Pittsburgh does, but for Washington, the running backs and the motion offense will also have to play a significant role. It will only work if Morgan Moses, Brandon Scherff, Chase Roullier, Wes Schweitzer and...will it be Cornelius Lucas this week?... can hold their own against Highsmith, Tuitt, Alualu, Heyward and Watt.

Key No. 3 - Turnovers & field position

The Steelers play the field position game very well. As mentioned above, they are 2nd in the NFL in starting field position. Washington plays the same game, and only a little less successfully, ranking 11th in the league in starting field position for offensive drives.

The key to Pittsburgh’s field position success is their +12 turnover differential for the season.

After starting out strong in the early part of the season, Washington has fallen to a negative turnover differential.

  • In the WFT’s four victories, they have two giveaways and eight takeaways for a ratio of +6.
  • By contrast, in the team’s seven losses, the numbers are 14 giveaways, 4 takeaways, and -10 differential.

You can do the math.

To win the game against Pittburgh, Washington has to have more takeaways than giveaways. The offense has to take care of the ball, and the defense has to find ways to get it away from the Steelers.

In my opinion, this is the single biggest factor in this game. If Pittsburgh is +1 in this metric, I believe they win the game; if Washington is +3 in this metric, I believe they win. Anything in between is likely a close game decided by my fourth key factor.

Key No. 4 - Stamina - play the full 60 minutes

The Football Team has been better playing in the second half of games than the first half of games this year. It can be frustrating to play from behind, and I’m not advocating that the team not play well in the first half, but I think that being a second-half team may be an advantage in this game if it is still competitive at halftime.

The Steelers rely on grinding out wins through tough defense and relentless pressure. It is often Pittsburgh that is the mentally tougher and physically stronger team in the 4th quarter.

However, Ron Rivera has stressed conditioning, mental toughness and teamwork since his arrival in Washington. The Steelers are playing on 5 days’ rest while Washington has gone 11 days between contests. There’s good reason to believe that Washington can win the last 15-minute stanza against a Steelers team that is ranked 2nd in scoring defense, but just 12th in scoring offense in the 4th quarter of games this season.

If the game is close at the end of the 3rd quarter, Rivera’s team needs to use what they’ve learned in the first 11 games of the season to close this one out with a winning effort down the stretch.

Bonus

Greg Rosenthal of NFL.com has picked the Washington Football Team to bring the Steelers undefeated steak to an end on Monday. Here’s what he wrote in his Week 13 Game Picks:

Washington Football Team 20, Pittsburgh Steelers 17

5 p.m. ET (FOX) | Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)

The Thanksgiving and spotlight games of Week 12 felt heavy, featuring a number of teams that appeared worn down by the weight of this season. That included the Steelers, whose own COVID issues were compounded by a late ACL injury to pass rusher Bud Dupree on Wednesday evening. The rested Football Team has competed admirably all year, with game changers Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson playing their best ball since Alex Smith took over. I want to see Smith help topple the last undefeated team, and I want to see his postgame interview at 5 p.m. PT on a Monday afternoon.