Welcome to Around the NFL, where Cale Berger of Steelers Now will recap early-week action and take a look ahead at some of the most important matchups from the Pittsburgh Steelers perspective.
AROUND THE NFL THIS WEEKEND
Jacksonville Jaguars at Green Bay Packers, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
Before they battle Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in Jacksonville on Nov. 22, the Jaguars will have to get through another future Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this Sunday.
Rodgers is having a tremendous season, and looks comfortable in his second year in head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense. The two-time MVP has thrown 24 touchdown passes with just two interceptions, while competing 67.5% of his passes for 281.6 yards per game. He has also only been sacked nine times all year, which is bad news for a Jacksonville pass rush that has gotten to the quarterback only eight times.
The main beneficiary of Rodgers’ dominance has been wide receiver Davante Adams, who is on a tear as of late. Adams has caught 30 passes for 422 yards and six scores over the last three games. He is the first player in NFL history with three games of ten or more catches, over 150 yards and a receiving touchdown in a single season.
The unproven commodity in this game’s quarterback matchup, Jaguars rookie quarterback Jake Luton was a pleasant surprise in first career start a week ago, throwing for over 300 yards, passing for a touchdown and rushing for another in replacement of Gardner Minshew.
Luton will be flanked by another rookie gem in running back James Robinson, who’s seven total touchdowns are tied for the lead among rookies. He ranks second among first-year players with 805 scrimmage yards as well.
Both will have to excel again to overcome a struggling Jaguars defense and keep pace with Green Bay’s high-flying offense.
Houston Texans at Cleveland Browns, 1:00 p.m., WPGH-TV
Fresh off their bye week and a loss to the Raiders 14 days ago, the Browns will look to get back on track when they host the struggling, two-win Texans this Sunday.
After dominating on the ground through the first five weeks of the season, Cleveland’s once dominant rushing attack has sputtered over the last three games. The Browns began the year averaging 188.4 rushing yards per game, but have averaged just 86 the last three contests. Their stumbling ground game will get a much needed boost this Sunday with the anticipated return of running back Nick Chubb, who has missed the last four games with a knee injury. He was off to strong start to 2020, rushing for 335 yards and four touchdowns. Once again pairing Chubb with the ever-consistent Kareem Hunt should get Cleveland’s offense back to their bread and butter.
Kickstarting the ground game should not be difficult either, with Cleveland opposing a Houston rush defense that is ranked 31st against the run surrendering 159.5 yards per game.
As they have for much of his career, the Texans will once again rely on the playmaking ability of quarterback Deshaun Watson. No. 4 has been excellent this season and one of the lone bright spots in what has been a dreadful year for Houston. In their win over Jacksonville last weekend, became fifth quarterback in NFL history with at least 275 passing yards and over a 105 passer rating in five-straight games. He could very likely continue that streak Sunday against a Browns pass defense that is ranked 22nd and has allowed 17 passing touchdowns, tied for the sixth-most in the league.
All the while Watson will be evading Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who is tied for the league-lead with nine sacks and has at least one in six of his last seven games.
Washington at Detroit Lions, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
Defying the odds and completing one of the best comeback stories in recent memory, quarterback Alex Smith is set to make his first start in nearly two years when Washington visits Detroit.
Stepping in for the injured Kyle Allen last week versus the Giants, the former No. 1-overall pick passed for 325 yards and a touchdown. While it was his first 300-yard performance since Week 9 of 2018, he did toss three costly interceptions. Sunday will prove if Smith is still the road warrior he was prior to the injury. Over his past eleven road starts, he has 22 touchdown passes and just four interceptions for a 108.9 rating.
To ensure success, Smith will have to find his young star wideout Terry McLaurin early and often. Selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the former Buckeye already has 108 receptions, 1,611 yards and ten touchdowns through 22 career games. Along with Dallas’ Amari Cooper and Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins, McLaurin is one of three NFC wide receivers with five games of seven or more receptions this season. He is also aiming for his third-straight with over 90 receiving yards and a score.
As for Detroit, quarterback Matthew Stafford is quietly having a solid 2020 campaign, as he continues to be one of the more underrated played in the league. Stafford has thrown for 2,127 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season. He has three or more touchdown
passes and a 90+ passer rating in five of his past six at home, and his aiming for his third-straight at home with with at least three passing scores.
He will surely be tested Sunday by Washington’s top-ranked pass defense that has allowed just 185.6 yards per game, eleven passing scores and picked off eight passes. They also have 27 sacks on the year, which are the fourth-most in football. Stafford has been sacked 21 times.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots, 8:20 p.m., WPXI-TV
As Baltimore looks to keep pace with Pittsburgh at the top of the AFC, they will travel to New England for their third road contest over the last four weeks.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has only faced the Patriots once previously in his young career, but his tremendous performance against Belichick and co. last November helped cement his MVP candidacy a year ago. Jackson carved up New England, completing 17 of 23 passes for 163 yards and a score, while also bludgeoning them for 61 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Adding to his big day, Jackson did so against a Patriots defense that was first points and yards allowed in 2019.
He will face significantly weaker unit this time around that has been hampered the by COVID-19 opt-outs of linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung. The Patriots are still strong against the pass and ranked fifth in the league, but their run defense has taken a nose dive. After own the league’s sixth-best run defense a year ago, New England is now 21st in 2020.
Unless Belichick can scheme up a way to shut him down, Jackson should be expected to have another strong performance. He is no stranger to excelling in primetime either, accounting for 15 total touchdowns and no interceptions in five career game under the bright lights.
The key for the Patriot offense will be their ability to protect the football, with takeaways being the calling card of Baltimore’s defense. The Ravens have forced a league-leading ten fumbles and have picked off four passes, including one of each in their win over the Colts a week ago. New England, on the other hand, has dealt with the turnover bug all season, including 12 the last four games.
REST OF THE SCHEDULE
- Indianapolis Colts 34 Tennessee Titans 17
- Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
- Denver Broncos at Las Vegas Raiders, 1:00 p.m., 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
- Los Angeles Chargers at Miami Dolphins, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
- Buffalo Bills at Arizona Cardinals, 1:00 p.m., KDKA-TV
- Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams, 4:25 p.m., FOX Regional
- San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints, 4:25 p.m., FOX Regional
- Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers, 4:25 p.m., WPGH-TV
- Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears, Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
NFL Insider John Clayton: Steelers Out of Running for J.J. Watt
One of the league’s most prominent insiders believes the Steelers are out of the running for free agent defensive end J.J. Watt.
Joining The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday, NFL insider John Clayton said Watt will not be joining his brothers T.J. and Derek in Pittsburgh.
Clayton sees the Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills as the favorites to land Watt’s services.
For a potential dark horse, Clayton says the Las Vegas Raiders as an outside-the-box candidate to sign the veteran pass rusher.
.@JohnClaytonNFL says JJ Watt won't be coming to Pittsburgh. Tennessee, Green Bay, and Buffalo are the 3 teams. Raiders as a dark horse.— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) February 24, 2021
Watt leaves Houston as one of the greatest players in franchise history. He was selected to five Pro Bowls, named First-Team All-Pro on five occasions and earned three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
A future Hall of Famer, Watt is the Texans’ all-time leader in sacks (101), tackles-for-loss (172) and forced fumbles (25).
Watt recorded 52 total tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown in 2020.
NFL Hosting Women’s Careers in Football Forum
The NFL is hosting its fifth annual Women’s Careers in Football Forum from Feb. 24-25, the league announced in a press release Tuesday.
The event will be held virtually and “connect 40 women, 75% of whom are women of color, with leaders in professional football to help those women network and build relationships in the areas of coaching, scouting and football operations.”
Those participating in the event will join panel discussions, breakout sessions and have networking opportunities with industry leaders, such as head coaches and team executives. All portions of the event are aimed at building connections that will result in hirings and subsequent representation.
Since its inception in 2017, the two-day event has assisted in developing “a more diverse talent pipeline by connecting high-potential women to career opportunities in football.” According to the league, 118 opportunities for women in football have been created as a result.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and wife Jane Skinner Goodell will speak, as well as NFL Chief Football Administrative Officer Dawn Aponte. In addition, three owners, seven head coaches and six general managers will also join the conversation.
Sarah Thomas made history earlier this month becoming the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl. The champion Tamp Bay Buccaneers also had a record number of women on their coaching staff this past season.
Report: 2021 NFL Salary Cap Expected at $182-183 Million
The 2021 NFL salary cap is expected to be around $182 or $183 million, according to a report by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
That is just slightly above the bare-minimum figure of $180 million agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA last week, and aligns with Steelers Now sources that predict the cap will fall between $180 and $185 million.
The Steelers are one of several teams that will be significantly over the salary cap, regardless of what figure is.
According to Pro Football Talk, those teams have been lobbying to increase the 2021 salary cap at the expense of future years to minimize the impact the pandemic has had on NFL operations.
Doing so would essentially amount to an interest-free loan given by the owners to the players, something that some owners have balked at.
That final figure could still be impacted by the league signing new television contracts for the 2022 season before the salary cap is finalized, which is expected some time in March.
The new league year starts on March 17, which is the day that all teams must be under the new salary cap.