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
Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens, 1:00 p.m., KDKA-TV
With the Steelers currently holding the lead in the division, Sunday’s matchup will be crucial for the Ravens, as they try to keep pace in the AFC North against the rival Bengals.
Baltimore had lofty expectations entering the year, but still seem like a mystery through four games. They are 3-1, but two of their wins are against bottom-feeders in the Texans and Washington, while their lone loss was a thrashing at the hands of the Chiefs on Sept. 28.
Still, the Ravens’ dominant rushing attack has carried over from a year ago. They own the third-best rushing offense in the league, and have continued to set up quarterback Lamar Jackson in the passing game, who has thrown three touchdowns on play-action passes already this season.
Though their record may not show it, the Bengals and rookie quarterback Joe Burrow have been looked impressive at times. The No. 1 pick is second in the league with 116 completions, and he is the first rookie in NFL history to throw for over 300 yards and three-straight games.
The Ravens will have to return to their roots to earn their second division win, flexing their muscles on the ground against the Bengals’ 27th-ranked rush defense and keeping the ball away from last year’s Heisman Trophy winner.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
In their first game since the firing of head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien, the Texans will host the division rival Jaguars in search of their first win of the season.
Outgunned and outmanned, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson has been under constant duress through the first four weeks of the season. The Texans have allowed 16 sacks this season, the most in the league. Watson has been pressured on 31% of his dropbacks. Still, he has tried too make the most of his situation so far, passing for six touchdowns and 273 yards per game.
Watson should get a break this week facing a non-existent Jacksonville pass rush that has record just four sacks, the fewest in the league. The Jaguars have also surrendered the highest completion percentage in the league at 77% and the fourth-highest quarterback rating at 112.6.
If Jacksonville is going to struggle pressuring Watson, they will have to generate takeaways. They have three interceptions on the season, while Watson has tossed three of his own and fumbled twice. Takeaways could be the key for the Jaguars to keep Houston and their young star winless.
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, 4:25 p.m., WPGH-TV
Following Steelers-Eagles, Pittsburgh fans will be treated to an extra helping of NFC East action when the Cowboys host the Giants.
Winless on the season, the Giants and second-year quarterback Daniel Jones are in desperate need of a break offensively. They will get on in the form of a putrid Dallas defense.
While the anemic Giants offense is last in the league in yards (1,112), points (47) and touchdowns (3), the Cowboys defense has been equally as bad. Dallas has allowed the most points in the league at 36.5 per game, and the third-most yards at 1,722. They have only forced two turnovers, the fewest in the NFL.
The Giants defense will in turn have to slow down Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who is putting up historic numbers through four games. Prescott has thrown for over 450 yards in three-straight games, the first to do so in NFL history. His 502 passing yards against the Browns last week set a new career-best. He has also tossed nine touchdown passes and is completing over 68% of his throws.
Unfortunately, Prescott’s dominance has not translated to wins, only magnifying the deficiencies of a struggling Dallas roster. Sunday’s divisional matchup against a struggling Giants team is the perfect opportunity for Prescott’s supporting cast to step up.
Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns, 4:25 p.m., FOX Regional
The Colts and Browns have been two of the biggest surprises through the first quarter of the 2020 season with both clubs sitting at 3-1.
Cleveland’s league-leading rushing attack has garnered the headlines, but it has been their quarterback’s protecting of the football that has led to their hot start. Baker Mayfield was a liability a year ago, throwing 21 interceptions and fumbling six times. He has just two picks and no fumbles so far in 2020.
The Browns’ defense has picked up the slack in the takeaway category, forcing ten already through four games, which leads the NFL. Six of those takeaways have been fumbles recoveries, and star defensive end Myles Garrett has forced three. The former top pick had forced just six career fumbles entering this season.
Quarterback Philip Rivers was the big addition for Indianapolis this offseason, but it has been the Colts’ defense that has made the biggest impact early. They have surrendered the fewest yards and first downs in the league, and own the league’s top pass defense. The Colts have also picked off a league-high seven passes and have allowed just a single rushing score.
With both clubs dominating the turnover battle through four weeks, a costly giveaway could be the deciding factor between these two unexpected contenders.
REST OF THE SCHEDULE
Chicago Bears 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 19
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
Arizona Cardinals at New York Jets, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
Philadelphia Eagles at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:00 p.m., WPGH-TV
Los Angeles Rams at Washington, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers, 4:05 p.m., FOX Regional
Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks, 8:20 p.m., WPXI-TV
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, Monday, 5:00 p.m., ESPN
Los Angeles Chargers at New Orleans Saints, Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans, Tuesday, 7:00 p.m., KDKA-TV
Around the NFL: Championship Game Sunday Features four Star QBs
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers, 3:05 p.m., WPGH-TV
It will be a Battle of the Bays in the early slot Sunday, as Tom Brady and the Buccaneers visit Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Tampa and their athletic defense got the better of Green Bay back in Week 6, winning handedly 38-10 and holding Rodgers to his worst performance of the season.
The Bucs’ relentless pass rush had Rodgers under constant duress, sacking to probable MVP four times and picking him off twice. Rodgers was also held without a touchdown pass for the only time in 2020.
As for Brady and the Bucs, he tossed for 166 yards and two touchdowns of his own. Tampa Bay running back Ronald Jones II had 113 yards and two scores on the ground.
Playing the best football of his career since that loss to Tampa Bay, Rodgers will assuredly be looking to avenge his poor performance back in October to reach his second Super Bowl. He carved up a stout Los Angeles Rams defense for 296 yards and three total touchdowns a week ago, and has tossed one interception over his last 210 pass attempts.
He will try to keep that unblemished streak alive against a Buccaneers defense that picked off New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees three times a week ago.
Tampa’s Tom Brady can reach his tenth Super Bowl with a win over the Packers. No stranger to performing in the elements, Brady will look to carve up the improving Green Bay defense with his patented surgical precision.
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs, 6:40 p.m., KDKA-TV
While two legends are squaring off in the NFC, a pair of rising stars will go toe-to-toe in the AFC Championship game, as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs welcome Josh Allen and the Bills.
Cleared from concussion protocol after leaving last week’s win over the Cleveland Browns, Mahomes is still battling a toe injury that could hamper his signature mobility. Luckily for Kansas City, Buffalo is 22nd in the league in pressure rate.
Even without his scrambling, Mahomes is still a threat from the pocket, coming off a season where he threw 38 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
The Chiefs offense will get a boost to take the heat off Mahomes on Sunday night as well, with rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire set to make his return from injury.
Turning to the Bills, they are here behind an MVP-caliber season from Allen, who has made tremendous strides in his third season. His 45 total touchdowns this year are the most ever by a Buffalo quarterback, while he improved his completion percentage by 10.4 percentage points, now at 69.2%.
Allen has protected the football well this season with just ten interceptions, but he will have to be extra cautious opposing the safety Tyrann Mathieu and the Chiefs defense. The “Honey Badger” has five interceptions in his last six games.
Kansas City is looking reach their second-straight Super Bowl, while Buffalo is pursuing their first appearance since 1993.
Baltimore Ravens Sign WR Deon Cain to Reserve/Future Contract
The Baltimore Ravens have signed former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Deon Cain to a Reserve/Future contract, the club announced Friday.
We have signed WR Deon Cain to a Reserve/Future contract.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 22, 2021
Cain spent the last two seasons with Pittsburgh, spending the majority of the 2020 season on the practice squad. He appeared into two games this past season, including the season finale loss to the Cleveland Browns, but recorded no stats.
Cain saw more extended action in 2019, where he appeared in six games and made three starts. He tallied five receptions for 72 yards a season ago.
A star for the Clemson Tigers, Cain was selected in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. He caught 130 passes for 2,040 yards and 20 touchdowns during his Clemson career.
Washington’s Alex Smith Beats Ben Roethlisberger for PFWA Comeback Player of the Year
Washington quarterback Alex Smith has been named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, edging out Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
After suffering a significant leg injury in 2018 and subsequent infection that nearly took his limb, Smith made his unlikely return to the field in 2020, leading Washington to a division title and playoff appearance.
Smith passed for 1,582 yards and six touchdowns with eight interceptions, but led Washington to a 5-1 record in his six starts. He is the first Washington player to win the award since its inception in 1992.
Roethlisberger was also believed to be a worthy candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, leading the Steelers to a 12-4 campaign and AFC North title after missing the majority of 2019 with a season-ending elbow injury. The 38-year-old threw for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns with ten interceptions.
Running back Jerome Bettis (1997) and quarterback Tommy Maddox (2003) are the only two Steelers to have previously been awarded Comeback Player of the Year.
Smith was not the only quarterback recognized by the PFWA on Friday, as Buffalo’s Josh Allen was awarded Most Improved Player of the Year.
Allen made a remarkable jump in 2020, passing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns with ten interceptions. He also accounted for eight scores on the ground.
Not only were his 37 touchdowns seven more than in his first two seasons combined, but Allen also completed a career-high 69.2% of his passes, a ten percentage-point increase from a season ago.
Allen will have another opportunity to demonstrate his jump in play Sunday when the Bills visit the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC Championship game.
Two Steelers have previously been named the league’s Most Improved Player, quarterback Kordell Stewart in 2002 and running back Le’Veon Bell in2015.