Welcome to the latest edition of the Steelers Stock Report of the 2020 NFL season: Washington Football Team edition. I have been granted the distinguished opportunity to attempt to determine which direction individual players, or units, are trending after each weekly matchup, to the best of my ability. I will attempt to make each determination without the use of my Black-and-Gold glasses, but admittedly I can make no promises.
Let’s get started...
Steelers stock trending up: Mike Hilton
Mike Hilton came to play Monday afternoon against the Washington Football Team at Heinz Field. He played like a man possessed throughout the game, especially in the first half. He was attacking the play aggressively from the snap, resulting in a couple of tackles for loss early in the game.
Hilton enjoyed a solid outing in pass coverage, almost intercepting the ball on one memorable pass breakup. He was matched up in coverage on TE Logan Thomas multiple times throughout the afternoon, and more than held his own. That is truly impressive when you consider that Thomas is 6'6" and 250 lbs. while Hilton is listed at 5'9" and 184 lbs.
Hilton has made his living overcoming what would appear at first glance to be overwhelming odds. He is tough and tenacious, and his intensity sets the emotional tone for the Steelers defense more often than not. His style of play is unique for the slot position, and Washington made a concerted effort to avoid him as the game went on, limiting his production in the second half.
The Steelers defense, already missing multiple starters due to injury, had two more go down during the game. The Steelers ended up losing a hard fought game, but that shouldn't take away from the outstanding performance of Mike Hilton.
Steelers stock trending down: Vertical passing game
I had a lifelong friend, who just happens to be a Cleveland Browns fan, send me a comment after reading my last Stock Report article. He wanted to say that the Steelers would have to improve their running game to be serious Super Bowl contenders moving forward. While I didn't necessarily disagree with him in principle, I replied that the Steelers need to be more efficient when they do run the ball.
The Steelers honestly don't have the personnel to be a run heavy team, but they need to strive for more balance on offense as the playoffs loom on the horizon. Success in the playoffs often goes to the team more capable of playing situational football.
One of the reasons the Steelers have struggled to run the ball is all the congestion within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. This situation has only increased since the Steelers offense has become totally dependent on Ben Roethlisberger and the short passing attack. Ben has done a great job of getting the ball out of his hands quickly and into the hands of his playmakers, resulting in precious few sacks and hits to his person. However, all the quick throws does nothing to stretch the defense and open up the field.
It's obvious that Ben is concentrating on self preservation and trying to stay healthy for the playoffs, which makes sense. The Steelers will only go as far as their franchise QB can carry them. That being said, Ben has to focus on making the passing attack more vertical than horizontal. He needs to start working the ball down the seams to JuJu Smith Schuster and Eric Ebron. He has to start connecting on more of his deep throws, not just drawing pass interference penalties. They need to exploit mismatches when they present themselves.
Case in point, the Steelers took a shot down the field on the key 4th and one late in the fourth quarter. I have been screaming all season for the Steelers to get Anthony McFarland matched up with a LB on a wheel route or out in space. They finally went to it as they got McFarland matched up with former Steelers LB Jon Bostic, who is notoriously bad in coverage, but failed to connect on the crucial fourth down. That is not effective situational football.
After the game, multiple Washington defenders stated that the Steelers offenses was predictable and they knew coming into the game they could exploit it. Further evidence that the Steelers offense needs to go back to the drawing board before the playoffs roll around. A good place to start would be with the Steelers vertical passing attack.
Steelers stock currently flat-lining: Super Bowl aspirations
It sounds funny to say that a 11-1 team is trending in the wrong direction, but the Steelers have been moving in that direction even before the loss to Washington. Some of the difficulty has been of their own making, while some has been beyond their control.
Injuries are inevitable and effect every team in the league, but the Steelers injuries are starting to piled up, especially on defense. The Steelers defense; down multiple starters at the time, looked disorganized and disoriented during the fourth quarter, especially on the WFT touchdown drive to tie the game.
The importance of the loss of Robert Spillane due to a knee injury could not be overstated. Not only does he relay the defensive calls on the field, but he has done a solid job covering running backs since Devin Bush was lost for the season. Washington abused Vince Williams and Avery Williamson after Spillane went down. Washington went up tempo to trap them on the field and in coverage. That can not continue moving forward.
The Steelers have plenty of issues, some are fixable and some are not. The Steelers offense needs to make adjustments and attack vertically down the field more frequently. Personnel package changes maybe required. The Steelers defense needs a little good fortune on the injury front. Getting their starting CB tandem back would be a great start.
The Steelers have plenty to work on before the playoffs roll around in the near future, but that's ok. There's still time to do just that; and besides, nobody ever said it was going to be easy.