As we have been for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, we’re checking out the Washington Football Team offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Washington’s Run Scheme
Rushing attack that’s largely been dormant this year but is beginning to wake up as they entrust impressive rookie Antonio Gibson with a bigger portion of their offense. He’s still playing only about 50% of the offense’s snaps but they’re maximizing his touches. 59 touches (49 carries, 10 receptions) over his last three games.
For the year, they’re averaging just 4.1 YPC. But they have a nose for the end zone. 16 rushing scores this season, tied for fourth most in football. Also doing a great job protecting the football. Tied for fewest in football with just one fumble this season on run plays (though they have 17 fumbles on pass/other plays, quite a difference).
Average attack in terms of explosive run plays. Tied for 18th with 32 runs gaining at least ten yards. And tied for 13th with six runs of 20+ yards. Gibson is responsible with four of them.
Gibson leads WFT with 139 carries, cementing himself as lead dog in their pack. He’s averaging 4.6 YPC with a whopping 11 rushing touchdowns. And again, he’s only playing about half his offense’s snaps. Backup Peyton Barber is averaging just 2.9 YPC, a plodding type whose basically the opposite of Gibson. There’s also JD McKissic, who gives me Duke Johnson vibes. Treat him as much as a receiver as he is a running back. Over the last month, he has more receptions (21) than carries (18). For the season, he has five games with at least six receptions.
They’ll run plenty of two-back/Pony personnel groupings. They’ll split McKissic out wide and then either run jet sweeps with him or fake them and give the ball to Gibson. Good constraint play to keep defenses on their toes. Stress the LBs eyes. Example of them running the jet and then faking off it.
I talked to Gibson at this year’s Senior Bowl. Said he was most comfortable running outside zone at Memphis and you see some of that in Washington’s run game. They’ll mix in a variety of run schemes but Gibson has the speed and athleticism to get the ball out on the perimeter.
Some other offensive stats. Offense averaging just 21.9 PPG this season, which is 25th. But things have been better with Alex Smith at QB. They’ve had at least 20+ points in five straight games. That happened just twice in their first six games. Big difference post Dwayne Haskins. While I praised their run game ball security, they’ve turned the ball over 18 times this year. Easily top ten in the league. Their offense has also struggled in situational football. 25th on third down (39.7%) and 22nd in the red zone (58.3%).
Washington’s Pass Scheme
Now with Alex Smith, returning after a near career-ending leg injury, at quarterback. And he’s been playing alright since taking over as starter. For the season, he’s completing 69% of his passes with three touchdowns and five INTs. He did have a three pick game off the bench earlier this year. As a starter, he’s thrown two touchdowns and two picks. You can also see the gameplan change when he came in off the bench as opposed to when he was a starter. Off the bench, he’s averaging 7.4 YPA. As starter, he’s averaging just 6.6 and in his past two games, have YPA’s of 5.6 and 4.8. Short passing game has been their calling card.
Smith has also been sacked 15 times this year. Theme of the year as their QBs have been under a lot of pressure. Washington QBs have been taken down 35 times this season, third most of any team. They’ll be facing a Steelers’ defense at the top in sacks.
They’re average to below average when it comes to explosive pass plays. 30 completions of 20+ yards (tied 18th) and five completions of 40+ yards (tied 17th). Of the latter 40+ yard catches, #1 receiver Terry McLaurin is responsible for three of them.
McLaurin’s really having an impressive season. 69 receptions for 923 yards and three touchdowns this year. Averaging a healthy 14 yards per catch. Targeted 102 times in 2020, making him (heading into this Week 13) one of just seven receivers with triple-digit targets.
They don’t have a clear #2 receiver. As I mentioned above, their backs are heavily involved in the pass game. McKissic will line up out wide plenty, he and Gibson combining for 78 receptions this year. WR Cam Sims is an interesting guy. He’s a big dude at 6’5, 215. Only 13 receptions this season but five receptions of 20+ yards this season, giving him an average of nearly 19 yards per catch. Chunk play guy and a name you want to remember. Might hear it a lot after this game.
Also gotta talk about Logan Thomas. He’s becoming a Swiss Army Knife for this offense. Quarterback at Virginia Tech turned TE after getting into the NFL. Asset as a receiver with a 34/328/4 line this season. Safety valve option since Smith entered the starting lineup, posting a 10/92/1 mark with him as the starter. He’s carried the ball twice (including a funky QB sneak with Smith out of shotgun, shown below) and thrown a pass this year, too. Came last week against Dallas and completed for 28 yards.
Conceptually, and Josh highlights this below, they love getting McLaurin isolated as their X receiver. Bank on him outrunning their CB (most often the RCB so for Pittsburgh, Steven Nelson, but I could see them go after the slower Joe Haden now that Nelson is out) vertically down the sideline.
They like to run divide routes and switch concepts too to stress safeties and exploit man coverage.
For their popular underneath concepts, expect to see Spot, Mesh, and All Curls. Plus a heavy dose of screens to backs and receivers.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Washington Football Team week, Pittsburgh Steelers fans!
Things have been a bit screwy as of late with the Steelers’ schedule due to other teams’ COVID issues, but another week means a showdown with Washington at Heinz Field Sunday afternoon.
Washington has played some good football as of late under head coach Ron Rivera with veteran Alex Smith calling the signals under center. Smith is quite the story in his own right, coming back from a gruesome leg injury, which almost caused him to lose the leg.
Since taking over for Kyle Allen, who suffered a gruesome leg injury of his own in Week 9, Smith has shown some flashes of his previous self, dialing up the deep ball occasionally, while also developing a strong rapport with star wideout Terry McLaurin.
Washington won’t push the ball down the field often with Smith back there, but when they do, Smith still has a strong arm with good accuracy for the position.
Shortly after taking over for Allen in Week 9, Washington – down a couple scores at that point – needed to get in gear offensively. Credit to offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who dialed up some solid route running combinations, leading to some wide-open windows for Smith.
Cam Sims really emerged as a big-play threat once Smith took over, racking up 32 yards on this play against the Giants in Week 9. Sims did a nice job settling into the soft spot in the zone for Smith to hit him in stride.
Later in the game, Turner dialed up another great play for Smith to take advantage of with Sims, sparking Washington.
Sims does a great job selling that he’s going to block for JD McKissic on the screen following his orbit motion. Once the Giants defenders bite, Sims leaks up the sideline for the wide-open throw and catch with Smith for 45 yards. Don’t be surprised to see Turner dial a similar play up on Sunday against an aggressive defense.
I’ve highlighted Sims – who I like quite a bit through four games of film on Washington, but the star of this offense out wide is McLaurin, who has more than lived up to the hype ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Does that route combination look familiar? It should.
You have the deep post McLaurin runs, and then you have another receiver runner a deep over route, stressing the free safety. The Giants scored in Week 1 on a similar play against the Steelers, so I’m sure Turner has this one ready to go for Sunday.
McLaurin is a legit deep threat that excels winning through contact, as he does here.
Add in the fact that he’s a terrific route runner who creates easy separation on his routes and it’s clear to all why he’s a legit No. 1 in this league.
McLaurin carved up the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. Look at the way he creates easy separation quickly in his cut on the dig route, leading to an easy catch for a first down.
Aside from McLaurin and Sims in the passing game, Steven Sims Jr. brings some serious speed to the receiver room, while veteran Dontrelle Inman is a solid possession guy. Those final two aren’t guys that are going to beat you on a consistent basis though.
At tight end, veteran journeyman Logan Thomas has really emerged as a legit No. 1 tight end for WFT. He’s a decent blocker and has some trick play elements to his game as a former dual-threat quarterback. But he’s really developed into a solid possession tight end that has some physicality up the seam, making for a tough cover for linebackers and safeties.
The key cogs to this offense though – aside from McLaurin – are running back Antonio Gibson and McKissic.
McKissic is a James White-type playmaker at running back. He’s outstanding catching the football out of the backfield and is a decisive runner with the football in his hands with good vision.
Gibson though, he’s an emerging star. I wasn’t as high on him coming out of Memphis this year as some others were, but he’s really proven me wrong quickly as a legitimate running back.
At Memphis, Gibson was more of a gadget guy, but Washington has done a great job developing him into a three-down back that brings power, home run ability and catches everything thrown his way out of the backfield.
Dallas found that out the hard way on Thanksgiving Day.
Gibson has a great first step, hits top speed almost immediately and has great vision to bounce runs and find space. He really concerns me come Sunday, especially if the Steelers are down a few key defensive linemen.
Up front, Washington has gone through a number of offensive line combinations this year, but they seem to have found a solid combination in the last few weeks under offensive line coach John Matsko.
Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right Sunday:
LT — Geron Christian Sr.
LG — Wes Schweitzer
C — Chase Roullier
RG – Brandon Scherff
RT — Morgan Moses
I really like the guard combination with Schweitzer and Scherff, especially in the run game. Both are solid pulling options and work to the second level well.
Roullier seems to find himself on the turf a lot and can be overpowered at times.
The issue I have with this group overall is the tackle combination. Christian is a young guys still developing out of Louisville, but he struggles with an initial punch and has heavy feet, while Moses is grab-happy and finds himself flagged a lot.
Washington has worked Cornelius Lucas and David Sharpe into the fold at tackle in recent weeks as well, so don’t be surprised to see Washington change things up occasionally on Sunday.
The line has given up quite a bit of pressure on Smith in recent weeks, which has led to some ghastly interceptions thrown by Smith under pressure. That could be a recipe for success Sunday.
On special teams, Dustin Hopkins and Tress Way bring strong legs to the table. Way has punted well in recent weeks and has helped pin teams deep, while Hopkins has been mostly consistent kicking. However, Hopkins has missed six kicks on the year and seems to have a low trajectory upon contact, which could led to a block or two.
Sims Jr. returns the punts. He hasn’t had much success overall on punt returns this year. He dances a lot and doesn’t have great vision initially in the return game.
Speedy Danny Johnson returns the kicks for WFT, and much like Sims Jr., has had very little success in the return game. He has a 46-yard return on the year, but in recent weeks has struggled to get WFT to the 25-yard-line when returning kicks.