The Steelers’ wonky three-week schedule hits its midpoint as they face the Washington Football Team at Heinz Field on Monday. Coming off two straight wins, the Washington Football Team is looking to keep pace with the New York Giants in the NFC East. Meanwhile, the Steelers have a chance to punch their ticket to the postseason with a victory. Still, with some injuries and a fiery team coming to town, it will not be an easy game for the Steelers to pull out.
The Washington Football Team brought a new staff on this year and they are just starting to gain a rhythm offensively after a tough first half of the season. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner followed Ron Rivera from Carolina and has brought with him the same schematic ideas. Turner has his base West Coast ideals, but he molds the scheme to players. This team started out more so as a gap running team and has switched largely to a zone running scheme. Now, Turner’s base running scheme is zone, but he is learning his personnel and working to their strengths.
This is an example of the wide zone scheme that the Washington Football Team loves to utilize. With some weak tackle play, they have started to use their tackles more as just traffic cones rather than people movers. The interior of this Washington offensive line is playing at a high level and they run behind it a lot. It is hard not to when that frontside combo block completely washed out the cutback lane and allows Peyton Barber to make that cutback and get vertical with ease. When the Washington offensive line is blocking like this up front they can be a bit of nightmare for teams. The Steelers have a vastly superior defensive line to what the Cowboys have shown right now, though.
One way that Turner will weaponize his scheme is by doing stuff like this. Washington comes out in 13 personnel in the heavy set, but then motion out into an empty look. This creates mismatches all around the defense and gives Washington a blatant advantage from the snap of the ball. The Cowboys have five defensive lineman, and they can not match Washington toe for toe on this play. McLaurin gets matched up on Sean Lee, a linebacker, and they get a first down out of the play. It is why when they can get the running game going, Alex Smith’s day becomes a lot easier too. Stuff like this and play action are heavily used on this offense.
As for the defense, Washington uses a traditional 4-3 look under Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio. A lot of what they do up front is aimed to confuse and take advantage of explosive penetrators across the line. That makes stunts particularly potent with guys like Chase Young on this defense. However, on the back end is where they make some of their magic happen. Quarters, Cover 1, and Cover 3 are the bread and butter of this defense. It is not a complicated defense since they have a ton of young personnel. They try to keep things simple. That could play well into the Steelers hands this week.
Players to Watch
QB Alex Smith
Coming back from a career-threatening leg injury, it is impressive that Smith is even on the field. Since becoming the starter, he has not been that impressive. Smith is just a guy that steers the boat along but has lost most of his mobility and never had a fantastic arm. Washington has such takes minimal deep shots down the field and it is instead Smith making the correct reads and throwing mostly short and accurate passes. When pressured, Smith has been outright bad this season. The Steelers should want to get after him.
RB Antonio Gibson and WR Terry McLaurin
These two are paired together because they are the catalysts for the Washington offense. Almost 70% of the touches on this offense are filtered through rookie phenom Antonio Gibson and star wide receiver Terry McLaurin. Gibson’s a former receiver with elite athleticism. He is tough to bring down in the open field and has a lot of big play potential with his speed and explosiveness. The more he has learned, the better he has played. McLaurin is one of the best route runners in the NFL. McLaurin has quickly turned himself into one of the NFL’s finest.
IDL Da’Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen, EDGEs Chase Young and Montez Sweat
It is hard not to highlight the entire Washington Football Team defensive line. They are second in the NFL in sacks only behind the Steelers and continue to get better each week. Sweat and Young are both freakish athletes for the position and will give Alejandro Villauneva and Chukwuma Okorafor some issues. They are too explosive and crafty to be held quiet for the entire game. Payne and Allen are two bosses working on the inside of this Washington defensive line. They are strong and hard to move off their spot. Even more importantly, these are guys that still possess some significant juice to get interior penetration.
Matchups to Watch
Chase Claypool vs Ronald Darby
The Washington defense is one of the best in the NFL. Not only are they a fearsome pass rush unit, but these young defensive backs play downhill as well as any group in the NFL. That makes them a tough matchup for the Steelers. Thus, the Steelers need the deep ball today to help open up that underneath stuff. The Washington Football Team straight up has no one that can match up with Chase Claypool. Ronald Darby got burnt by Amari Cooper and has been burnt a few times on deep balls this season. Claypool will have to get one or two today to help the Steelers offense crack the code.
Terry McLaurin vs Steelers Cornerbacks
Straight up the Steelers need to mitigate McLaurin’s impact on this football game. Missing Steven Nelson is a big blow to this team. There should be a lot of confidence for Cam Sutton regardless with his high-level of play. However, McLaurin has toasted guys like Darius Slay, so even Joe Haden is not immune to getting put in the blender by an elite wideout. If these cornerbacks can just hold McLaurin to a modest game and not give up many big plays to him, this will be a big win for the team.