This week we are previewing the contest between the 11-0 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 4-7 Washington Football Team (WFT). The Steelers won an ugly 19-14 decision on Wednesday in their long-awaited rematch with Baltimore while Washington blew out the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, 41-16.
Washington’s 4-7 mark has them tied with the New York Giants for the lead in the woeful NFC East. Don’t let that mark deceive you, however. WFT has looked competent as of late. That’s not high praise but it should serve as a warning to anyone who expects the Steelers to blow through them on route to the big matchup at Buffalo next week. WFT is 3-3 in their past six games, with their losses coming by one, three and three points. Their schedule hasn’t exactly been Murderer’s Row over that stretch. They’ve played Dallas and the Giants twice plus Cincinnati and Detroit. Those four teams are a combined 13-30-1 on the season. Still, wins are hard to come by in the NFL and Washington has found ways to get it done.
Washington’s improvement has coincided with the benching of quarterback Dwayne Haskins following a 1-3 start. Haskins’ numbers weren’t awful overall, and they were particularly solid (32-45, 314) in a 31-17 loss to the Ravens in week four. Those numbers may have been his undoing, however. According to this report from Yahoo Sports, Haskins was benched for bragging about his stats following the Baltimore loss. That upset his teammates and underscored reports that Haskins was neither mature nor serious enough to lead the team. WFT seems to have rallied behind his replacement, Alex Smith, whose comeback from a near life-threatening leg injury is the most inspirational story in the NFL this season. As the culture has improved in Washington, so have the results.
One advantage Washington will enjoy heading into Monday’s contest is time. Both Pittsburgh and Washington were scheduled to play on Thanksgiving. The Steelers, of course, had their contest with the Ravens rescheduled for last Sunday, then again for Tuesday, and finally for Wednesday after a COVID outbreak decimated Baltimore’s roster. Pittsburgh will play on just four days’ rest while Washington has had ten days between games. After a physical contest with Baltimore, the effects of that disparity could be significant.
How will the Steelers overcome this disadvantage, and what are their keys to victory? Here are some thoughts.
Continue to produce turnovers on defense
News flash: turnovers are a primary determinant in who wins or loses a football game. That adage is as old as the game itself. In Washington’s case, this has been particularly true in 2020. In their four victories, they have two turnovers and eight takeaways for a ratio of +6. In their seven losses, they are 14/4/-10.
Smith turned the ball over three times in his first appearance, a 23-20 loss to the Giants in week nine. In the three games since, he’s turned it over just twice as Washington has gone 2-1. The Steelers, meanwhile, have been excellent at producing turnovers. After leading the league in 2019 with 38 takeaways, they are first again in 2020 with 23 through eleven games. Pittsburgh’s turnover total includes a league-leading 16 interceptions. The Steelers have picked off opposing quarterbacks in a variety of ways: by generating pressure, by masking their scheme and with great coverage fundamentals. Here are examples of each.
Against Dallas, the Steelers pressured quarterback Garrett Gilbert with a red-zone stunt that saw safety Terrell Edmunds come off of the left edge while Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree compressed the pocket from the other side. Heyward bull-rushed his blocker into Gilbert’s lap, which caused a weak throw that was intercepted by Minkah Fitzpatrick:
This type of pressure also produced one of the more iconic moments of the season. In the opener at New York, Dupree chased quarterback Daniel Jones out of the pocket then clipped his arm as he attempted a throw. The ball fluttered into the air, where it was plucked out by Heyward, whose “Swan Lake” leap was a thing of beauty:
The Steelers have created interceptions by disguising their scheme as well. Early in the second half of the first game against the Ravens, they aligned in a 3-5-3 configuration to defend Baltimore’s 21 personnel grouping. Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith walked up on the line of scrimmage to the strength (left side) of the offensive formation. The Ravens ran a simple high-low route off of play-action, assuming Highsmith would attack the run fake. Instead, Highsmith dropped into coverage, following the fullback to the flat. Quarterback Lamar Jackson saw Robert Spillane singled up on his tight end and targeted him. But Highsmith fell back on the route to make what proved to be a game-changing interception:
It’s unlikely Jackson expected Highsmith to be in the throwing lane here, given that he was the force player against the run. This was a nice coverage design from the Steelers and an even better play by Highsmith.
The first Ravens game also featured an interception by Spillane that demonstrated great fundamentals. On Baltimore’s opening drive, Spillane (middle of the field) read Jackson’s eyes and undercut his throw to slot receiver James Proche II. Spillane did a nice job sitting on the sticks on a 3rd and 6 play and not biting when Jackson tried to look him off early in his progression. Spillane maintained positional discipline, trusted Dupree to handle the inside slant coming from the opposite side of the field and baited Jackson into a contested throw. It was a great coverage play by the young linebacker:
Here’s one more. This is Joe Haden’s pick-six from Wednesday’s Baltimore game. The Steelers aligned in a standard cover-2 shell to the boundary. As you can see from the diagram, Baltimore ran a fade-flat concept, which is a traditional cover-2 beater. Haden (circled in the photo below) was responsible for carrying the outside receiver (#1) until the inside receiver (#2) threatened the flat:
It was a 3rd and 4 play so Haden anticipated a quick throw at the sticks. Quarterback Robert Griffin III made the mistake of staring down the flat route, which prompted Haden to quickly release the vertical from #1 and jump #2.
It was an easy interception for Haden, who finished the play by making a nice run to score. Haden’s expert execution of the cover-2 scheme (coupled with bad quarterback play from Griffin) created the opportunity.
Against Washington, pressure may be an effective way to generate turnovers. Washington is 30th in the league in sacks-allowed while the Steelers’ defense has produced the most in the league. WFT’s sacks have decreased under Smith, who is more mobile than Haskins and can run his way out of trouble. As we see here, however, he is not immune from throwing the ball up for grabs when pressured:
If Pittsburgh’s defense can take the ball away from Washington and create easy scoring opportunities for the offense, it will force WFT to put the game on Smith’s back, a role for which he may not be well-suited at this point in his career.
Neutralize Chase Young
Few players in the NFL have impressed me more as rookies than Chase Young. Young has drawn comparisons to Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney at this stage of his career and is a leading candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. While Young’s numbers aren’t mind-blowing — he has 4.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss and two forced fumbles thus far — Young has already proven to be a disruptive force along the Washington defensive line.
The first thing that jumps out when watching Young is how quickly he gets off the ball. Young seems to snap forward from his stance with the suddenness of a sprinter. He is capable of using that burst to disrupt blocking schemes, like he does here by stunting into the B-gap on a simple inside zone run. Watch Young, lined up at left defensive end, slant across the tackle’s face and penetrate the gap before the offense can communicate how to block him:
Here he is on another zone run, taking advantage of the fact the right offensive tackle gets too much forward-lean out of his stance. The tackle is off-balance ever-so-slightly and Young uses the mistake to knife inside for another tackle-for-loss:
Teams that try to block Young with a tight end, or in this case tight ends, are in for a rude awakening. Here, Young shoots his hands to gain inside leverage and holds his ground on a tight end double-team before playing off to make a tackle:
Then there’s this play, where Young splits a double-team that includes Eagles’ All-Pro lineman Jason Peters. Watch how violently he strikes and how quickly he gets separation with his hands. This is scary-good by the rookie:
Young is both athletic and powerful at the point of attack and can disrupt an offense’s rushing attack by himself. It may be better to run away from him and let him chase the play, and to then use that aggressiveness against him by running screens and mis-directions, than to run right at him.
Young can rush the passer, too. That’s where he initially earned his reputation. With Pittsburgh’s expert pass protection, however, and with the fact Ben Roethlisberger leads the league in time-of-release at a little over two seconds per throw, the Steelers have done a nice job minimizing the impact of elite pass rushers. This isn’t to say Young can’t be disruptive in this capacity, only that Roethlisberger rarely holds the ball long enough to allow rushers to be effective.
More worrisome is something like the scenario below, where Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow escaped the pocket, scrambled around and was flattened by Young on this viscous open-field hit:
(That’s not Burrow’s head players are chasing after the hit — it’s the football).
Young is not a dirty player — the hit on Burrow was clean and legal — and Roethlisberger is not likely to scramble the way a young QB like Burrow does. Big Ben still has the occasional tendency to extend plays, however, which create unscripted situations and can lead to break-downs in blocking assignments. The thought of Young getting a free run at Roethlisberger and the chance to put a hit on him like the one above is frightening. The Steelers will have to account for Young from snap to whistle on every play.
It’s tempting to call this a “trap game” for the Steelers since it’s sandwiched between big games against Baltimore and Buffalo and the Steelers have a short week to prepare. Pittsburgh played terribly against the Ravens, however. Turnovers, dropped passes and a bone-headed play in the secondary that yielded a late Baltimore touchdown made the game much closer than it should have been. Odds are the Steelers won’t play two straight such games, which bodes well for their chances on Monday. Winning the turnover battle and neutralizing Chase Young would improve those chances significantly.