PITTSBURGH — Much has been made about the difficulty of the early part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ schedule when it comes to the quality of opposing edge rushers.
The Steelers started the season by facing reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa and the San Francisco 49ers. They’ll continue the stretch this Monday night, when they’ll face four-time All Pro Myles Garrett and the Cleveland Browns. On the horizon is two-time Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby and the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3.
But this year, the Steelers have something of a secret weapon when it comes to neutralizing opposite edge rushers, and that’s tight end Darnell Washington.
The rookie third-round pick out of Georgia came into the NFL known as a quality blocker, and he showed his chops early on, getting a pancake block on Bosa in the opener.
Darnell Washington’s blocking game is on ANOTHER level.
Washington already looks like a Top-10 blocking TE in the league.
Washington didn’t allow a SINGLE pressure in his NFL debut.
Matt Canada (Steelers OC) said recently that Washington has “continued to ascend” since he… pic.twitter.com/5xdQOJ65NY
— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) September 14, 2023
“Having that big body on the edge, Coach (Mike Tomlin) always says it, him having that body on a 4-3 defensive end, I think it’s going to play a heck of a lot of difference, honestly,” left tackle Dan Moore Jr. said this week.
Washington knows that difference will be the key to his early role in the Steelers offense.
“They’re a big factor in their defense,” he said. “We’re just trying to slow them down in any way if that’s helping tackle with the tight end, whatever it may be, just trying to slow those players down and not let them disrupt the whole game.”
When your job is helping against the other team’s top defender, and you end at least one rep with an All-Pro on his back, that probably counts as a good way to start your career.
“It’s always a good feeling, whoever it may be,” he said. “Being a dominant player like he is, a high-caliber player who is a key factor, their guy on defense or whatever, really just making a play in general, but when it’s their key player, it’s like times two.”
Last season, then-rookie Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett was on the field for the resumption of the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia at Acrisure Stadium.
This Saturday, with the Steelers not playing until Monday night, it’s probably possible for Pickett to make the drive down I-79 to Morgantown, West Virginia. But he said this year, he plans to watch at home.
The Steelers have two Pitt alumni in Pickett and practice squad running back Qadree Ollison, and no West Virginia grads on the roster right now.
For the second straight week, the far more difficult opposing tackle matchup will happen on the right side of the defense. Last week, the 49ers had All-Pro Trent Williams at left tackle while Colton McKivitz made his first season start as a No. 1 at right tackle.
This week, Jedrick Wills will play left tackle, while fourth-round rookie Dawand Jones will make his first career start in place of injured Jack Conklin at right tackle.
But the Steelers will keep their edge rushers in the familiar alignments, with T.J. Watt at left outside linebacker and Alex Highsmith on the right.
“There’s a lot of good players over there,” Watt said. “We can’t try to be something we’re not. If they want to focus on me, that can help Alex.”
Matt Canada said whether the team uses one or two tight ends as a “matchup-based thing” and won’t do more of that specifically because the team is without wide receiver Diontae Johnson this week.
That should mean a large role for Calvin Austin III and Allen Robinson II, along with Miles Boykin, Gunner Olszewski and potentially practice squad call-up Dez Fitzpatrick.