I can’t remember at this point whether or not last week was ‘put up or shut up’ time, but this week certainly is. Of course, whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers ‘put up’ tonight, they’re certainly not going to shut up, and we wouldn’t want them to—it’d make our job here a lot harder, for one thing.
Still, tonight is the night. It’s difficult to see a realistic path forward coming out of tonight’s game with anything other than a victory, over the AFC-leading, 8-3 Baltimore Ravens. A loss drops them to 5-6-1, and probably puts them two games out of a playoff spot at least, with a logjam for the final Wild Card spot, and as you already know, the schedule doesn’t get easier from here.
So how do they win their must-win game? It starts with avoiding unforced errors. No giveaways. Minimize penalties. Missed assignments cannot happen. Blitz pickups must be made. Coverages cannot be blown. And gaps most certainly cannot be undefended. This is a 53-yard gain—roughly the width of a regulation NFL football field. Every inch of that must be defended.
The good news is that, albeit against a small sample size, the Steelers have done well against Lamar Jackson, limiting him on the ground and forcing him to turn the ball over. They have intercepted him five times in two games and caused him to fumble three times, losing two.
That’s incredible production, but they certainly can’t count on duplicating it, and nothing they have done this season indicates that they will. So they can’t count on the splash play, even if Jackson has been turning the ball over at a high rate in recent weeks.
It is about defending the run, and it has to be, given how terrible they have been at it for a month and more now. Who cares if J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards aren’t there? They’ve already allowed Alex Collins to stomp on them. I’m surprised Justin Forsett doesn’t come out of retirement. And Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman are capable.
The passing game, you know the drill. It’s about Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown, both of whom have 60 receptions on the year for 760-plus yards and five or six touchdowns. Their numbers are actually remarkably similar right now. But they obviously have to be defended very differently, and that won’t be easy without Joe Haden—and with Devin Bush.
Offensively, this line has to find a way to hold up, in both phases. Odafe Oweh is playing well right now, as is Tyus Bowser. Dan Moore Jr. has been one of the worst starting tackles against the pass rush in the NFL. Then you have B.J. Finney with nobody behind him going up against Brandon Williams, alongside Mr. Walkback, Kendrick Green at center.
How do they counter this? No-huddle offense with RPOs. Use the tight ends, for starters, and lots of 12 personnel with Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry. Lots of stuff over the middle. And when applicable, take a shot to Chase Claypool, who won’t have Marlon Humphrey on him (assuming Humphrey plays at all). The Ravens have allowed more explosive plays than anybody else in the NFL. This is the game those plays need to hit.