The Pittsburgh Steelers staged a couple of second-half surges in their past two games to defeat the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans—two teams operating without the benefit of substantial experience at the quarterback position. On Sunday night, the Steelers face another opponent hampered by similar QB inexperience when the 5-5 Green Bay Packers visit the Steel City.
While having Aaron Rodgers cooling his heels on the sideline significantly limits their offensive potential, Green Bay’s strength at the wide receiver position remains a factor that Pittsburgh must take into account. But when pondering the troubles of the Packers’ offense in the weeks since October 15th, when Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone, Steelers Nation is acutely aware of the pitfalls inherent to matchups with supposedly lesser competition.
Despite Pittsburgh’s 8-2 record and comfortable divisional lead, the nagging unpredictability of the team’s overall performance through ten games of the 2017 regular season remains a concern in the back of everyone’s mind. In particular, the Steelers’ tendency to squander first-half scoring opportunities, keeping the game uncomfortably close into the second half, has been difficult to understand given the offensive weapons Ben Roethlisberger currently has at his disposal.
If we view the Steelers’ 40-point romp over Tennessee as the offense’s 2017 coming-out party, this week’s matchup with Green Bay might be viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate that the Week-11 explosion was no fluke. The Steelers currently stand at a crossroads on their yellow brick road, from whence they might either continue their march towards the Emerald City (otherwise known as Super Bowl 52) or else take another detour, reverting to the unfocused team we’ve witnessed periodically throughout this season.
The challenge of continuing to perform up to their potential regardless of the competition is clear cut in Sunday’s prime-time matchup, and this brings us to the three keys for a Steelers’ victory:
Key No. 1: Diversify the offensive game plan
With JuJu Smith-Schuster ruled out for the game, either Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, or both, will need to fill the important role of providing a reliable and productive option to the prolific Antonio Brown. Up to this point, we still haven’t seen Bryant or Rogers make the kind of impact fans anticipated at the beginning of the season. Furthermore, the Steelers have merely scratched the surface in probing the depths of Le’Veon Bell’s capabilities as a receiver.
When the Steelers’ offense has stumbled this season, it’s usually been the result of switching between different one-dimensional schemes at various points in their games. Typically, this involves either relying too heavily on Bell’s running or attempting to force deep balls to Antonio Brown or other receivers. Because every Pittsburgh opponent specifically focuses on limiting the production of Brown and Bell, it behooves the Steelers to diversify their offensive approach to keep the Packers’ defense off-balance. That’s also the reason why the emergence of rookie Smith-Schuster as a reliable target has been such a welcome development.
For their parts, both Brown and Bell will benefit from an offensive scheme designed to divert the focus of opponents’ defenses away from them. Offensive diversity not only can help Pittsburgh beat the Packers on Sunday night; it will be essential when the Black-and-gold reach the NFL playoffs and square off against the diverse offenses of other NFL contenders (hello Tom Brady).
Key No. 2: Take a page from the Ravens’ defense
Heaven forbid that the Steelers would take any lessons from the Ravens, but Baltimore has been able to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot this season almost entirely on the strength of their excellent defense and despite an utter lack of support from Joe Flacco and company. When they shut out the Packers in front of their hometown fans at Lambeau Field in Week 11, the Ravens’ defense hounded Hundley unmercifully throughout the game, forcing him to commit some costly errors which destroyed any opportunity the Packers had to put points on the scoreboard.
Hundley’s previous efforts have been widely panned by most pundits, but the Steelers need to keep in mind that—given adequate time to throw to some of the league’s best receivers—he’s definitely capable of doing some damage. Lest we forget, in their Week-10 matchup with the Colts, the Steelers’ secondary was victimized by Jacoby Brissett working with a receiver corps less accomplished than the Packers’ trio of wideouts. In fact, allowing Hundley to get comfortable in the pocket might be the only way for Pittsburgh to falter in this matchup.
Key No. 3: Make big plays on defense
This might sound strange in the wake of Pittsburgh’s defensive performance against the Titans, but the Sunday night matchup with Green Bay looks like one of the best opportunities of the season for the Steelers’ defense to take the ball away. Hundley was hearing footsteps throughout the game with Baltimore, and the pressure clearly got to him on more than one occasion. Like any young quarterback in the NFL, he’s prone to anticipating the pass rush and he occasionally makes hasty decisions, throwing the ball up for grabs. As for Pittsburgh, it’s about time the Black-and-gold’s defense ran some of these turnovers back for touchdowns. It’s great, of course, when your defense stops the opponent from scoring, but it’s fantastic when your defense puts points on the scoreboard.