As we’ve done in the past, the keys to the Pittsburgh Steelers winning (or losing) tonight’s game. Three things that need to happen for them to end up on the right side of the score and vice versa for Sunday night’s matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers.
My prediction is at the bottom.
The Steelers Will Win If…
1. Devlin Hodges Isn’t Forced To Play Scared
And to their credit, I think the Steelers’ coaches are smart enough to recognize they can’t go into a shell and hope to win. Hodges’ best strengths are his arm and his fearlessness while his preparedness and demeanor are all uncommonly good for a rookie UDFA. To an extent, they’re going to try and “hide” him with a strong run game, probably 3-5 snaps out of the Wildcat, and putting him in situations to win. That’s just practical whether you’re talking about a first round rookie or someone who’s taken Hodges’ journey.
But to win in seemingly another “do or die” contests, Hodges will have to push the ball downfield. Hit JuJu Smith-Schuster over the deep middle. Maybe this can be the week Johnny Holton catches something over the top. It may seem counter intuitive to everything in Randy Fichtner’s brain, and really, to anyone realizing this team is now on its 4th string quarterback, but it’s their only way to victory.
2. Keith Butler Defends Empty A Whole Lot Better Than 2018
The Steelers defense is much more talented and better equipped to handle empty this year than in last year’s matchup. Steven Nelson’s absence does scare me though. Losing his obvious ability and just as importantly, his versatility (even if he hasn’t played a lot of slot corner this year) is big. Still, Butler has to be able to match better when teams, like you know the Chargers will, align their #1 receiver to the slot. Copy what he did against the Cincinnati Bengals and Tyler Boyd. That’s the only game this year where this defense has defended empty sets well. Butler must come up with more answers and be willing to either align his outside corners inside or drop safeties down.
3. They Hold CB Dez King In Check
And I mean that regarding what King offers on defense and special teams. He’s arguably their best DB with Derwin James out and is a force off the edge in the run game and as a blitzer. He has 6.5 sacks since entering the league in 2017. Being able to identify him and set the protection accordingly will be critical and he often rushes in tandem with one of their safeties.
But defense isn’t the only element where King’s a threat. He remains their starting punt returner and has a 68 yard touchdown already this year. You’ll remember him as the man who ran it back 73 yards on the Steelers a year ago to begin their comeback. Danny Smith would be smart to direct Jordan Berry to focus on hangtime and kick it away from him.
The Steelers Will Lose If…
1. Lack Of Chemistry Proves Costly
In training camp, here are the completions Hodges had with the current, healthy players on the Steelers’ roster tonight .
Zach Gentry: 5
Johnny Holton: 5
Trey Edmunds: 4
Benny Snell: 3
Ryan Switzer: 3
Diontae Johnson: 1
JuJu Smith-Schuster: 1
James Conner: 0
Donte Moncrief: 0
Vance McDonald: 0
So the top players here are Gentry, who may not be active, Holton, who’s yet to catch a pass in the regular season, two running backs, and Switzer. Yay.
That has the potential to a lot of “newness” trying to throw to these guys, even for someone like Hodges who looked competent coming in ice cold a week ago. All it’ll take is one miscommunication, one wrong sight adjustment by either player, quarterback or receiver, to end in disaster. Saw it with Mason Rudolph, definitely could see it with Hodges. Those are the growing pains of a young QB, especially one thrust into action the way Duck has.
2. The Defense Fails To Defend The Middle Of The Field
Every defense, even good ones, have to allow something, and opposing offenses have attacked the middle of the field throughout the season. That’s where the Chargers like to attack and they have the weapons to do damage there. Underneath zone defenders have to be able to squeeze throws while the safeties have to be physical coming downhill. There’s a chance for a guy like Minkah Fitzpatrick to make a play on a crossing route as he did versus Baltimore, leading to Kam Kelly’s interception.
3. Mike Williams Takes Over
That’s Chargers’ wideout Mike Williams, the #7 pick of the 2017 draft. He didn’t have the monster game Allen did in last year’s meeting but posted an effective 3/52 line. He’s a big, physical body, and you can bet the Chargers are going to attack Artie Burns and see if he’s up to the task. Williams is someone who can win in all areas of the field but especially in the red zone, given his 6’4, 220 pound frame. I’m legitimately concerned Williams goes off and catches eight passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. Something game-changing like that.
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