GAME 8: Steelers Preview

Photo © Brian Murphy/homermcfanboy.com

The Redskins are looking to get back to the .500 mark, and they must do so in a place that has not been very friendly to visiting NFC teams. Since Heinz Field opened in 2001, the Steelers have played 23 home games against NFC teams. In those games, they are an astounding 20-2-1. That does not bode well for a Redskins team that is trying to stay afloat this season and get back to .500.
The Redskins must quickly recover from last week’s devastating loss to the New York Giants. After leading the offense on a 7-play, 77-yard drive for what seemed to be the game winning touchdown, Robert Griffin III could only stand on the sidelines and watch Eli Manning snatch away the victory. On the Giants’ 2nd play on the next drive, Manning connected with Victor Cruz for a 77-yard touchdown pass for a 27-23 victory. That loss should serve as a lesson learned for Robert Griffin III and the Redskins that no lead is ever safe until the clock reads all zeroes. One other major takeaway that I think the Redskins and its entire fan base came away with is that as long as #10 is the quarterback, the Redskins can win any game they play. In every game this season, the Redskins have had the ball in the 4th quarter either with the lead, tied, or down only one possession. Griffin III has brought stability to the Redskins offense and his playmaking ability will keep them in every game. Now, about those 4th quarters…
What separates the good teams from the bad, the playoff teams and the non-playoff teams is the 4th quarter. The good teams find a way in the final quarter to make a play or two more than their opponent and find a way to pull out the win. This is an area that the Redskins have not been very good at and it has cost them in all 4 of their losses. Simple coverage breakdowns, mental mistakes, penalties are all examples of miscues the Redskins have done at the most inopportune time. In order to win this Sunday, and to stay in the playoff hunt for the rest of the season, the Redskins will need to play better in the 4th quarter, be mentally sharp and execute the plays that are called.

Here is a look at the match-ups that will determine the outcome of Sunday’s game:

The Steelers’ passing game vs. the Redskins’ secondary
If there is one area of consistency for the Redskins’ defense this season, it has been the secondary’s inconsistency. The pass defense is ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed giving up an average of 328 yards per game. That’s over 20-yards more than the next worst team.

The Steelers will not make it any easier for the porous Redskins’ secondary. Historically known as a run-first offense, the Steelers have evolved into a Ben Roethlisberger offense. While the running game remains effective (no matter who is running the ball), Roethlisberger has become one of the NFL’s “elite” quarterbacks. He is able to avoid sacks, extend plays and has a very powerful arm, capable of making any throw on the field. And he has plenty of weapons at all of the skill positions.

Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown lead a group of receivers that are FAST and can turn a 5-yard reception into a long touchdown. Along with these two explosive receivers, the Steelers also have another speedster in Emmanuel Sanders, veteran Jerricho Cotchery, and All-Pro tight end Heath Miller. Miller could have a big day on Sunday as the Redskins have struggled this season against tight ends. Jimmy Graham had over 80-yards and a touchdown, Jermaine Gresham had over 60-yards and a touchdown, and Tony Gonzales had a monster game with 13-receptions for 123-yards and a touchdown. Heath Miller has to be licking his chops for this week’s game.

Robert Griffin III vs. Steelers’ 3-4 Defense
Robert Griffin III has experienced a massive amount of personal success over the first seven weeks of the season. He has surpassed all expectations by becoming one of the most dynamic players at the quarterback position, and maybe even in the entire NFL. But one test he has yet to face is against a 3-4 defense. And this week’s opponent brings “The Godfather” of the 3-4, Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator, Dick Lebeau.
The Steelers have been known for a ball-hawking, play-making defense. This year, age and injuries have caught up to them and they have struggled to regain their old form. They will be without their leader, Troy Polamalu, as he sits out his 2nd straight game with a nagging calf injury. However, the Steelers’ still have productive main-stays throughout the defense. The d-line is anchored by former All-Pro nose-tackle Casey Hampton. Their starting defensive-ends, Ziggy Hood and Brent Keisel, are veterans who have played at high-levels in their career and are very capable of getting after the quarterback. Their linebacker corp. is as good as it gets in the NFL. While James Harrison is playing through injury, he and Lamar Woodley claim the right to be called the best outside linebacker tandem in the NFL. In the middle, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons can both fly to the football and make things difficult for Griffin III and the Redskins. In the secondary, the Steelers will be led by cornerback Ike Taylor and safety (and former Redskin) Ryan Clark.

This Sunday will be a great mid-season test for Robert Griffin III and the offense.

Redskins’ rushing offense vs. the Steelers’ rush defense
Surprising to most, the Washington Redskins are leading the NFL in rushing offense. With an average of 177-yards per game, the rookie combination of Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris has been a nightmare for defenses to contend with. Morris has been a pleasant surprise and a steal in the 6th round of this year’s draft. After 7 games, Morris has 658-yards and 5-touchdowns, and trails the NFL-rushing leader, Arian Foster, by only 1-yard. If you, couple that with Griffin III’s 468-yards and 6-touchdowns, and the Redskins have a dual threat that is very difficult to defend.
The Steelers’ defense is ranked 9th in the NFL against the run. They have only allowed 100-team rushing yards once this season, against the Oakland Raiders in a 34-31 loss in week-3.

The Redskins use the running game to open up the rest of their offense. So much is done when they show the shotgun or pistol option look. The Redskins have proven that they can effectively run AND throw out of this formation and it will keep the Steelers’ linebackers busy all game.

Prediction: Week 7’s loss to the Giants was a disheartening and a missed opportunity for the Redskins. A win would have made them 4-3 and sitting alone atop the NFC East. Instead, they are 3-4 and in dire need against a tough Steelers team who simply do not lose very often at home. A win this Sunday against the Steelers will put the Redskins back on track for what could be a season to remember. Here is how the Redskins can win this Sunday.

Pressure, pressure, pressure: The Redskins have not been able to generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and Ben Roethlisberger is as good as it gets in the league at avoiding sacks. The double-edged sword for the Redskins is that they the NFL’s worst in pass defense. So how many blitzes will Jim Haslett call, how will he generate pressure without over-exposing his secondary.

Stop the run: The Redskins defense is ranked 7th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. This must continue on Sunday in order to have a chance to win. Whether it’s Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer running for Pittsburgh, the Redskins defense must limit the yardage and finish tackles. Forcing the Steelers into obvious passing downs could go a long way in helping the slumping secondary.

3rd down defense: This has been an area of concern all season for the Redskins. Getting off the field on 3rd down would be crucial for the defense. Not only will it limit how many points the Steelers’ offense scores, but it will also give Robert Griffin III and the offense more opportunities to put points on the board. The Redskins have the 7th worst defense on 3rd down conversions, while the Steelers are 1st in the NFL at converting 3rd downs. If the Redskins’ defense cannot correct this on Sunday and limit the Steelers’ conversions, then it will be a long day for the Redskins.

Bend, but don’t break: It is no secret that the Redskins are struggling on defense this year, especially in the passing game. They are last in the NFL having given up 7 pass plays over 40-yards. On Sunday, the Redskins are going up against a Super Bowl winning quarterback and a group of explosive pass-catchers. Big plays will hurt the Redskins this Sunday, and it would be in there best interest to make sure they do not give up any quick strikes for touchdowns. The game plan should be to keep everything in front of them and to always have a safety playing DEEP. If they can succeed at keeping things in front, even if the Steelers continuously move the football up and down the field, the Redskins’ defense can tighten up in the red zone and force the Steelers to kick field goals.

Run the Football: The running game has been the most important factor in the offense’s early season success. Not only has it alleviated some of the pressure from Robert Griffin III, but with an average of 5.4 yards per attempt (2nd in the NFL); the rushing attack has been a major part of the offense. The option threat the offense has leaned on and Griffin III’s ability to ride the play action keeps the defenders guessing. Credit has to be given to the much-maligned Redskins’ offensive line. Trent Williams is playing at a Pro Bowl level, Tyler Polumbus has surprised everyone with his consistent play and the interior of the line has been able to get to the 2nd level and create running lanes for both Morris and Griffin III.

Convert scoring opportunities: Whenever a team in the NFL plays on the road, scoring opportunities come at a premium. This is especially true in Pittsburgh where the Steelers have been dominant at home. The Redskins offense has had no problem moving the ball up and down the field on any opposing defense. They must turn their drives into points. Kai Forbath seems to have solidified the kicker position and is a perfect 4-4 in two games. When at all possible, they need to refrain from settling for field goals and get into the end zone. The Redskins have been among the league’s best in Red Zone touchdown percentage and need to continue this trend on Sunday.

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: Winning the turnover battle will usually give a team a chance to win the game. Last week the Redskins turned the ball over four times, on four straight possessions and it cost them. They are tied for 5th in the NFL in turnover differential with a +7 mark. The offense has protected the football all season and last week’s four turnover game should prove to be an anomaly. Pittsburgh’s defense is known to be turnover-aggressive, so while on offense, Washington needs to continue to protecting the ball. When on defense, the Redskins need to continue being aggressive and try to force the Steelers into turnovers. Turnovers for the defense equal more scoring opportunities for Robert Griffin III and the offense.