The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: The Steelers will feel the loss of Joe Haden much more acutely this week than they did last week.
Explanation: Given the timing of his positive test, cornerback Joe Haden will be required to miss the Steelers’ Wildcard Round postseason game against the Cleveland Browns after also sitting out the season finale in Cleveland. Cameron Sutton started in his place, while Justin Layne played the boundary position in dime sub-packages.
Although Sutton didn’t have too many negative moments last week, Justin Layne did get beat a few times, and that’s really where the concern is. If the Steelers are going to play in a lot of sub-package football, then Layne is going to have to play, and he hasn’t shown himself to be a consistently plus contributor.
That’s not the only place Haden’s absence will be felt, however. He is a much more physical and aggressive defender against the run, and we did see that last week with Nick Chubb having success. It’s still baffling that the Browns didn’t run more in the second half, but they shouldn’t make the same mistake again.
The passing game was largely held in check outside of the big play to Rashard Higgins. Jarvis Landry only had five catches for 51 yards. Don’t expect them to be able to do that twice in a row.
The Steelers’ secondary played without the team’s two best front-line players in T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward last week. The pressure up front will be better, meaning Baker Mayfield won’t have as much time to throw or be able to scramble in the pocket as effectively to buy time.
Mayfield has been held to under 200 passing yards seven times this year, including Sunday. It’s not uncommon for him to have such performances, and both Sutton and Layne have played a lot this year. They’re not new to this.
You obviously want Haden in the lineup, but you can win without him. There is nothing about this game as compared to the last time out that should give one reason to believe that his absence will be felt greater. The Browns arguably had more to play for last week than last week just to get to the postseason for the first time in 18 years. They are playing with house money at this point. Plus they won’t have their head coach or their best offensive lineman.