Matchup: Washington Football Team (4-7) +6.5 @ Pittsburgh Steelers (11-0)
Time and place: 5 p.m. EST at Heinz Field on FOX
Tidbit: The Steelers have won the last 6 games between these two franchises dating back to 1997.
KEY #1: Move Alex Smith off his spot
Smith's comeback story is remarkable, but at this stage in his career, he is an extremely limited athlete. Washington relies heavily on the run and play-action game to move the ball downfield. Smith is successful when he is able to operate with rhythm and timing, meaning the best way to throw him off is to make him feel pressure in the pocket to force inaccurate passes.
Watch how Smith reacts to some interior pressure after Detroit does a good job of taking away his initial read.
Stephon Tuitt is set to return just in time to pressure Smith on plays like this one.
KEY #2: Tackle, Tackle, Tackle...
This chart for Smith's most prolific passing game this season (38/55 for 390 yards against Detroit) comes courtesy of ESPN Next Gen stats. Notice anything?
Just 10 of Smith's 38 completions in this game occurred more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. In this respect, it becomes clear that Washington's passing offense is similar in some ways to Pittsburgh's, although Washington is far more reliant on the ground attack to set up the pass.
This style of offense makes for a physical game. The Steelers will need to play downhill, rally to the ball, and make tackles in open space to limit Washington's ability to run after the catch. When Washington decides to take a shot deep, it'll be to Terry McLaurin, and it'll probably be off of play-action.
Combine this with the fact that Washington is averaging a little over 32 rushing attempts in their last three games, and pursuit and good tackling clearly becomes a crucial aspect to winning this matchup.
KEY #3: Touchdowns in the red zone
Washington is the kind of team that will take advantage of a lackluster offensive effort from the Steelers because they're well-coached and play sound situational football. Simply put, the Steelers just need to clean it up. Drops in the red zone were the primary reason that the Steelers allowed the Ravens to hang around last week instead of breaking the game open.
These two drops on consecutive plays by Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson are backbreaking against good opponents. Had Lamar Jackson been healthy last week, we probably would have been able to pin the loss on these plays.
On the first, Claypool does a good job playing with physicality against Marlon Humphrey to get himself open. Gotta make this grab.
Johnson follows it up by trying to run without the football on what should have been an easy touchdown after some terrific route running. This is just not being sharp. The good news? Both of these players are better than they showed last week and should bounce back against Washington.
KEY #4: Commit to the run
It's officially time for the Steelers' rushing attack to show up or shut up. They've struggled to get anything going on the ground, forcing Ben to throw the ball far too often and limiting the offense as a whole to being one dimensional. At this point, it would mean a lot of the offensive line and running backs to get a moral win by enforcing their will against Washington.
Perhaps the most concerning play last week to me was the interception that Roethlisberger threw on 4th and goal from the 1.
Forget the actual result of the play- how about the fact that the Steelers came out in empty from the 1-yard line? This tells us that the Steelers don't have very much faith in their ability to run the football. On this play, they felt that their best shot was to let Roethlisberger cook, which is typically a winning proposition, but the Steelers need to be able to at least threaten an effective run to loosen up the D.
The Steelers need to be physical at the point of attack and commit to making this a game where they run it successfully. Washington is second in the NFL to the Steelers in opponent's pass yardage per game, largely because of a vaunted pass rush that is third in the league in sacks. In order to score on Washington, the Steelers will need Benny Snell to move the chains consistently.