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Answering Questions for Steelers Fans Ahead of the Game

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I did my 5Qs with Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain this week. He seems to have decided not to publish his questions and my answers in a single article on BTSC, but I’ll include them all together here in case they’re of interest to Washington fans. I’m always curious to see what other fans think of these answers and in particular if there are any that you’d answer differently.

1) When Washington has the ball, how will they try to move the ball?

OC Scott Turner runs an Air Coryell offense, but one with a lot of play action, pre-snap motion, and misdirection that seems to borrow heavily from concepts Sean McVay uses in LA. The offense has been focused around short and intermediate passing and a heavy use of RBs in both the run and pass game. This results in a lot of time-consuming drives and a high time-of-possession, but the number of plays increases the likelihood of a single mistake (penalty, turnover) derailing the drive. It also results in very few passes to WRs, but a lot of work for our 3-headed committee at RB (Antonio Gibson, JD McKissic, and Peyton Barber) both as rushers and as pass catchers. So long as it is a 1-score game, we should stay pretty balanced between the run and the pass. But if we get down on points early (as has happened often this season), we will go extremely pass heavy.

Alex Smith’s ability to escape a strong pass rush will go a long way to determining whether he can stick around as Washington’s starting quarterback and will be tested this week. The Steelers lead the league with an average of 12.8 quarterback pressures and 9.5 quarterback hits per game as well as 41 sacks.
Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

2) When the Steelers have the ball, how will the Washington defense attempt to stop Ben Roethlisberger and company?

DC Jack Del Rio has been running a 4-3 defense with an attacking, one-gap, upfield penetrating front. Hence, it is a defense that encourages the DL to be aggressive and shoot their gaps to get into the backfield if they can, but relies on the LBs to come up and defend unguarded gaps in the rushing game. On the backend, we primarily run zone coverage, but sometimes go man-to-man as the situation demands. We have been somewhat middle-of-the-road in terms of blitz percentage, often relying on the talented DL to do the work of getting to the QB without additional help.

The success of the defense this week will depend on the ability of the front four to bring pressure without help. QB Ben Roethlisberger has been throwing the ball an average of 2.28 seconds after the snap, the fastest in the NFL. Much will depend on the ability of Washington pass rushers (Chase Young, pictured) to get to the QB in that time.
Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports

In terms of how this translates to the field, we have a very talented DL with five 1st round picks on it (DE Chase Young, DE Montez Sweat, DE Ryan Kerrigan, DT Daron Payne, and DT Jonathan Allen) and they usually do a very good job of winning their matchups, resulting in a 51% pass rush win rate, 4th highest in the NFL. We also have some extremely underrated boundary CBs in Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby and a blossoming SS in rookie Kamren Curl. However, our LB group is full of late round picks and journeymen vets (you might remember Jon Bostic) and has been the Achilles heel of the defense so far this year. As mentioned before, the scheme relies heavily on LBs to fill gaps unguarded by the DL, but they have been doing a poor job of this so far this year. Our LBs have also been pretty poor in coverage, allowing opposing QBs to get the ball out quickly on throws to the middle of the field and partially negating our pass rush. We’ve also been struggling to figure out the FS spot, so the deep coverage may not be very good, but our DL are usually able to pressure QBs before they have a chance to throw deep. Overall, this has resulted in a defense that is ranked 3rd against the pass and 13th against the run according to Football Outsiders DVOA, but as mentioned before, the weakness is the LB group and the defense would be ranked much higher if we had more talent in the middle.

3) Who is your X-Factor for the game (a player who will be a linchpin for the success of the WAS in the game)?

There are two who need to be mentioned here: WR Terry McLaurin and RB Antonio Gibson. McLaurin is a 2nd year player who has looked like a star ever since he first stepped onto the field last year. He currently has the 5th most receiving yards in the NFL despite a constantly-changing QB lineup (Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, and Alex Smith) throwing to him and an offense that doesn’t feature WRs very heavily. He’s also got the most YAC among WRs in the NFL, is a willing blocker, and does whatever other dirty work is required of him to help the team, chasing down a defender after an interception to prevent a return TD in a great play last week.

Washington WR Terry McLaurin ranks 5th in receiving yards (963), 11th in catches (69) and 2nd in total yards after the catch (445). Of the players who have caught at least 50 passes, he ranks sixth with 23.2% of them going for 20 or more yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Antonio Gibson is an amazing athlete who flew under a lot of people’s radars in the lead up to the draft, but was being touted among some draft-watchers as one of the most explosive players in this year’s draft. He was initially trained as a WR in high school and college and only fully converted to RB in his last year of college, which is partly why he went unnoticed for a 6’0”, 228 pound man who can run the 40 yard dash in 4.39 seconds. He’s an interesting combination of big and powerful, but also fast and elusive (with the 5th best broken tackle rate in the NFL right now). He’s been limited by gameflow in many games (if we get down on points early, we turn away from the run), but broke out for 136 rushing yards and 3 TDs last week and we’re hoping to see more games like that when we can keep the score close or take a lead.

4) One player to watch no one is talking about?

A lot of people have been talking about Chase Young, but not enough have been talking about Montez Sweat, the defensive end who plays opposite Young. He was a 1st round pick in last year’s draft and has had a very good season so far, with 6 sacks, 13 QB hits, and 7 TFLs in 11 games played. Part of his breakout has been due to the attention Young demands, but Sweat has also been consistently beating his 1-on-1 matchups and playing with intensity until the final whistle is blown. His technique also improved a lot between last year and this one, so I think he’s going to be a great player for years to come. His stats would probably be better if we had better LB coverage to deny those short, quick passes.

Washington pass rusher Montez Sweat getting a sack on Cowboys QB Ben DiNucci, who Jerry Jones recently threw under the bus as a replacement-level QB in an interview.

Any Washington fan will also want to answer this question with our punter Tress Way. Tress has been one of the NFL’s best punters for a few years now and he gets plenty of practice due to our offense the past few years. He’s got a tremendous leg and currently has the 5th highest yards/punt on the season (as well as the 3rd highest net yards/punt, indicating he doesn’t outkick his coverage).

5) Prediction?

Well, I’m not going to predict a Washington victory. The Steelers are undefeated and Washington is 4-7 despite playing in one of the worst divisions in NFL history this year. Beyond that, I have to say even fans of the team have been having a tough time figuring out what this Washington team is. The team has shown flashes of potential and clearly has a lot of talent in certain players and among certain position groups, but hasn’t played many complete games due to mistakes or weaknesses elsewhere on the roster. We have been playing better recently though, ever since Alex Smith took over as QB. Part is probably due to Alex’s leadership, part is due to the many young players getting NFL experience finally starting to figure out their responsibilities in a new scheme, and part is probably due to a soft recent schedule. Washington fans will be intently watching this game because it will let us know how much of this improvement is due to the soft schedule and how much is genuine improvement on the team, as the Steelers are unquestionably a good team and a tough opponent. Either we fall apart and get blown out by the Steelers, in which case a lot of our improvement may have been a mirage due to the soft schedule, or we play the Steelers close and look like a competitive team, in which case maybe that improvement was real.

For anyone who wants a score prediction, Vegas has a 42 point over/under and 7 point spread, which would imply something like 24 - 17 in favor of the Steelers.


The Steelers are the only undefeated team in the NFL right now, but which team do you think is actually the best?

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