The Pittsburgh Steelers Week 4 game is finally approaching, following what coach Mike Tomlin termed as a “mini-bye week” that was hopefully well timed as the team attempts to rebound from a poor start to the season overall with a 1-2 record. The offense has really struggled as I’ve outlined in my passing locations, receiver charting, and situational football articles this week, and if the Steelers can show a positive trend in these areas against the also 1-2 New York Jets (who similarly got their victory in a late game situation), Pittsburgh can hopefully see more quality over quantity from the defense that has been on the field for the most plays in 2022.
Let’s start with the quarterback position, one with uncertainty going in the matchup. Jets quarterback Zach Wilson will make his 2022 season debut this Sunday, so it will be interesting to see how he fares, especially with their banged up offensive line (more on that later). From a data perspective, I wanted to look back at Wilson’s 2021 season to see the value he provided his team using EPA (expected points added) to see how he fared across the league his rookie season:
Looking at his weekly performances, his first three games were the worst stretch of his rookie year as expected, with his lowest EPA marks coming in weeks two and three. The following three games were much improved overall, providing his season best EPA mark in week four against the Titans. Zach Wilson then suffered a knee injury, missing the following four games. Upon his return, he posted below the line marks in six of his last seven games, with week 17 against the Buccaneers being his only positive number of that stretch and only two overall on the season.
Looking more broadly, Zach Wilson had 213 completions (55.6 completion percentage) for 2,334 yards (6.1 yards per attempt), nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Most of his interceptions came pre-injury, particularly week two when he had four and had none his final five games. It will be interesting to see how his 2022 campaign takes off, will we see a positive jump as we see from many rookies in year two? Will he be below the line considering the 2021 as he comes off another injury? Will he show more awareness taking care of the football as he did later in the 2021 season, or can the Pittsburgh defense provide a key takeaway (or more)?
While I was at it, I wanted to look at Pittsburgh quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s EPA for the 2022 season thus far, and see how it compared to the league:
As expected, his performance has been below the line so far in 2022. His worst mark of -0.25 came last week against the Browns with the eighth lowest EPA of the week. Trubisky has 62 completions (60.2 completion percentage) for 559 yards (5.4 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and 1 interception. The latter is one of the most encouraging factors of his season to date, taking care of the football overall, but the offense struggling to keep drives going let alone score, tying for the second fewest touchdowns passes to date. Here’s to hoping the Pittsburgh offense can find some continuity and move the ball, with their poor time of possession (second worst in the NFL) not only affecting their lack of scoring, but straining the defense as well (highest number of plays in the league).
Last thing for the quarterbacks, I wanted to provide the completed and intended air yard numbers through three weeks to see how Trubisky fared as well as seeing how the Jets and backup Joe Flacco have attacked through the air in 2022:
Here we can see Trubisky lands on the top right of the graph with the sixth ranked IAY on the season (9.1), along with a much lower 6.4 CAY number that’s tenth in the league and just above the mean out of the 33 qualifying quarterbacks. The CAY result is surprising considering my charting and very poor downfield results, but the increase and completion rates in the intermediate pass game (throwing 25.8% from 10-15 air yards and completed 6/8 on such passes in week three), aiding his NFL ranks. Here’s to hoping we see more of that on Sunday, providing a healthier air yards differential (especially on third down) which is currently fourth worst in the NFL, and optimistically providing a higher CAY number in the process.
Flacco’s above the mean 8.2 IAY number ranks 12th through three games filling in for Zach Wilson, along with a below average 5.7 CAY number that ranks 16th. So, the Jets have been pushing the ball downfield with Flacco when comparing to the league, but the connection has been lacking overall (sound familiar?). Speaking of comparisons, while this isn’t a perfect one, here are Zach Wilson’s 2021 season totals: 5.8 CAY, 7.7 IAY. His CAY was nearly identical to Flacco’s along with a lower IAY, which would be just below the mean in each data point on the above graph. It will be very interesting to see how the quarterbacks fare. Who do you think will have the stronger game?
Next, let’s look at the running backs. Pittsburgh’s defense is facing another formidable Jets tandem in Michael Carter and Breece Hall, and hopefully the Steelers offense can continue some positive trends on the ground, especially from the offensive line. Here are the 2022 rushing stat leaders through three games:
Right away we see Browns running back Nick Chubb atop of the graph, highlighting his most recent stellar performance (113 yards and 7 forced missed tackles) against Pittsburgh’s defense last week, who allowed 171 yards in total. This brings up a key component in this week’s matchup in my opinion, where both teams would be wise to lean on the run, to elevate the struggling pass offense for Pittsburgh, and to ease Wilson back into action if you’re the Jets. New York’s backs both land on the bottom left with below the mean attempts and yards, highlighting the team playing catchup and having to abandon the run in their first three games.
Carter leads the team with 28 attempts for 122 yards for a respectable 4.6 yards per attempt. 76 of his yards have come after contact, forcing nine missed tackles on the season which is second best of running backs with less than 30 attempts. Hall has the fewest attempts (21) of the backs with at least 20, with 112 yards for a great 5.3 yards per attempt. He has also provided good value with yards after contact (84) along with four forced missed tackles. Both backs have provided runs of the explosive variety (20+ yards), and Hall having an outlook high four runs of 10+ yards. Both teams go into the matchup with eight total explosive plays, tying for 31st in the NFL through week three, and looking for Pittsburgh’s defense to keep the number low especially against New York’s run game.
The Jets backfield also presents a challenge in the pass game, with Hall having 101 receiving yards (6th) on 20 targets (T-2nd) and 13 receptions at 7.8 yards per reception and a touchdown in his great rookie year to date, but has three drops. Carter has 13 receptions on 15 targets for 74 yards at 5.7 yards per reception, and each back has forced four missed tackles on their receptions. Here’s to hoping the Steelers defense can have a stronger tackling performance, than they did against Chubb and the Browns as our own Josh Carney highlighted well in his missed tackles report.
Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris leads the outlook and above the NFL mean in attempts (40), for 128 yards and a low 3.2 yards per attempt. A whopping 100 of his yards have come after contact, along with six forced missed tackles, and has also been able to provide eight first down runs, which is an outlook high. Here’s to hoping the Steelers can lean on Harris, who can hopefully continue to provide the first down runs that have largely sustained long drives the team has been able to muster. He has 10 receptions on 11 targets for 48 yards (4.8 per reception) and a touchdown, and I’m looking for Harris to also provide more for a pass game that needs all the help it can get, especially with yards after catch and adding more in the forced missed tackles department through the air (currently has two).
Next, I was curious to see the running backs time to the line of scrimmage (TLOS):
Interestingly, each back has been well above the mean in lowest TLOS, with Hall having the seventh quickest time in the NFL with Carter not far behind at 11th. This highlights a big takeaway for Pittsburgh’s defense, needing to win and get clean off their blockers quickly to play gap sound in order to hopefully limit their attack. Harris ranks 16th to date, and here’s to hoping he can pair more consistent vision with this decisiveness, considering some missed holes the offensive line provided as I outlined in my last game recap along with other fellow contributors.
How do you think the run games will fare? How about run defense?
Now for the wide receivers, let’s start with their targets and yards:
Here we can see Jets rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson leads the outlook with two touchdowns and 214 receiving yards, with the latter tying for 17th in the NFL at the position. This is partly due to the Jets playing from behind and forced to pass for much of the season, but it’s reasonable to expect him as the primary option on Sunday regardless of game situation, considering Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon will miss the game with his hamstring injury, and being tied for the third most targets in the NFL (33). Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson is one of those players, and in comparison, has 196 receiving yards (T-23rd) on his 33 targets along with a no touchdowns, which is crazily a feat no Steeler receiver has accomplished in three games. Surely this will be the week?!
New York’s other primary wide receivers are next in targets, starting with Elijah Moore (21) who pairs this with 12 receptions and 139 yards primarily playing out wide. Corey Davis has fewer targets (19) but above the mean with ten receptions and 187 yards and a touchdown, which was a triple explosive 66 yarder in week two accounting for much of his yardage and has also primarily played outside. Garrett Wilson has played a good mixture with slightly more snaps from the slot, and each has spent time moving around which could present a challenge for Pittsburgh’s secondary and coverage as a whole, who are down a man or two, with Cameron Sutton landing on the final injury report on Friday with a groin injury but appears he will play (fingers crossed). So, big games are needed from cornerbacks Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood to say the least.
Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool has 16 targets, 11 receptions, and 79 yards through three games, and fellow wide receiver George Pickens has 12 targets, only five catches, and 65 yards. Looking for a few things from these two for week four, with Claypool hopefully continuing to provide the rare third down passing conversions the team has lacked overall, and Trubisky finding a better connection with Pickens on a hopeful larger variety of routes that can provide more separation for the receivers, especially the latter coming off a long week.
Speaking of which, I wanted to provide more data context to this point with wide receiver catch percentages and separation:
Johnson is the only wide receiver in the outlook with an above the mean catch percentage, just above the line at 63.6% but charged with one drop. His top rank here in the outlook is more impressive considering a below average separation number (2.5), a hopeful facet of improvement the Pittsburgh receivers can provide against the Jets cornerbacks, considering Pittsburgh’s three lowest ranks in the outlook. Johnson will likely face Jets rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner primarily, another rookie who has fared well for the team, so interested to see that matchup plays out. Also looking for Claypool and Pickens to hopefully step up and get open with more favorable matchups, and fingers crossed improving the gaudy 41.7 catch percentage (7th worst) of the latter through three games.
Garrett Wilson is the only player with an above the mean separation number in the matchup of over three yards, and all three Jets receivers are below the mean with catch percentages in the 50 range. Here’s to hoping the combination of Zach Wilson’s return behind an ailing offensive line can bode well for the Steelers defense, with a strong pass rush playing strong into coverage. It will be interesting to see how Steelers cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Cameron Sutton fare, and particularly looking at the slot position as a big key as mentioned earlier.
Another factor I wanted to take a look at is the type of yardage the receivers have provided, using intended air yards (IAY) and yards after catch (YAC):
The first takeaway is another week of below the mean YAC numbers for both teams. This is another facet where the Steelers hold the bottom three ranks in the NFL. Especially for Johnson, his 0.25 YAC number ranks dead last in the NFL! Claypool and Pickens are the fifth and sixth worst league wide, for a rancid collective result all below two for the position. Not too much better for New York, but Garrett Wilson and Davis having better marks in the three range. YAC could be a big factor, with whoever wins the battle and gives their quarterback the most help, and thus sustaining drives, likely coming out on top.
Davis leads the outlook with an IAY of 17.1 which ranks fifth in the NFL. Pickens and Moore land on similar points on the graph, with the former barely winning out in IAY (14.7) compared to the latter’s’ 14.3 that rank tenth and 12th respectively. The big difference is the connection though, with Moore having a completion rate that’s over 15% higher. Johnson and Garrett Wilson’s IAY are just above the NFL mean at 11.3 and 11. The only player in the outlook who is below the mean is Claypool, as expected catching mostly five-yard outs on the season, with an 8.5 IAY number through three weeks. It will be very interesting to see how these numbers look with Zach Wilson at the helm, along with a likely closer game on the scoreboard possibly lowering these numbers.
Which wide receiver corps will have the stronger game?
The tight end position is an interesting one for the matchup, and let’s start with a quick view of the receiving stats leaders:
Jets tight end Tyler Conklin jumps out with the second most receptions in the NFL at the position with 18 for 140 yards (7th) and a touchdown on his 24 targets (T-3rd). Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth is now just above the mean for tight ends with 11 receptions, just shy of Conklin with 138 yards (8th) and also has one touchdown on his 21 targets (6th).
Let’s gain context with separation and YAC for these stats:
The tight ends have similar YAC results near the mean, with Freiermuth having the slight edge at 5.37 (12th) and Conklin at five yards (15th). Conklin is the second ranked separator at the position through three weeks, at an impressive 4.7 yards. He has been given the 12th most cushion off the line, which is less than Freiermuth’s eight most cushion off the line but fourth worst separation of only 2.5 yards. This is an element I’ve been hoping would improve for all Pittsburgh’s receivers, and hopefully this is the game where they can get open and Trubisky can have a good game reading the field and maximizing the right opportunities more frequently.
These results got me curious what the IAY numbers looked like for the position, as well as catch percentages to round out the data:
Really enjoy this view, especially valuable seeing three of the top tight ends in the NFL alone on the top right. Refocusing on this matchup, we see Freiermuth is above the mean with a 7.3 IAY (7th), but unfortunately has not improved with Trubisky on their connection, with the fifth lowest catch percentage of 52.4 and down from 56.3% last week. Conklin’s high number of receptions have come in the short range overall with a 3.9 IAY (7th lowest) and is in the majority tier of players on the bottom right that benefit with high catch percentages (75%, which ranks 7th). This could be a big factor, and here’s to hoping Pittsburgh’s linebackers and secondary fare well against him, particularly reading and reacting quickly when in zone, and considering the recent explosion from Browns tight end David Njoku (who lands similarly on the graph).
Which tight end do you think will have the stronger game?
The trenches are important any given week, and the offensive line play will likely be the biggest key to victory. Here’s how both teams have fared according to PFF in both the run and pass game in their opportunities:
Right away we can see Pittsburgh has the clear edge in the outlook according to PFF in the pass blocking department. Guard James Daniels highlights the group with an 86.2 grade which is fourth best across the league out of players with at least 30 snaps, along with the entire offensive line having 70+ grades. They have played encouragingly well, especially with no sacks charged to them per our own Alex Kozora. Here’s to hoping this positive trend continues against New York’s defense in hopes that the passing offense can finally get it going.
Jets right guard Alijah Vera-Tucker leads the matchup in run blocking, with an 83.2 grade that ranks fifth in the NFL through three weeks. This will present a big challenge for defensive lineman Cam Heyward and Pittsburgh’s interior, with fellow lineman Montravius Adams getting a promotion to starting nose tackle, hopefully he can step up and provide an improvement against the run considering Tyson Alualu’s recent struggles. Steelers tackle Chukwuma Okorafor leads the team with a 79.5 run block grade (11th), and he’ll need to provide that again along with a hopeful positive trend from the line who has shown some good things in this regard as of late.
Pittsburgh’s interior o-line will have their hands full against a strong defensive front for the Jets. Center Mason Cole and guard Kevin Dotson are above the mean in both data points in the outlook, and looking for them to step up in the run game as one of the big keys for offensive success (or lack thereof). Daniels and Steelers tackle Dan Moore are below the mean as run blockers, particularly Moore with a low 50.2 grade.
The only New York lineman who is above the mean in both data points is center Connor McGovern with mid 60 grades as a run and pass blocker. I expected to see Vera-Tucker and McGovern try to double Heyward often, as we’ve teams intelligently do, reiterating the rest of the defensive interior being huge key once again on Sunday.
Injuries have plagued the Jets along the o-line, having to send three players to injured reserve, with left tackle George Fant being the most recent name, going down in last weeks game. Conor McDermott replaced him, which is a huge key to the matchup considering his massive struggles on 35 snaps, allowing five pressures and a sack. Looking for Steelers edge rusher Alex Highsmith to hopefully matchup here primarily, and hopefully he eats and builds on his league leading sack total (4.5). New York right tackle Max Mitchell has a 56.9 pass block grade along with a 55.9 as a run blocker. Jets left guard Laken Tomlinson has particularly struggled as a run blocker with a 32.6 grade, and is also well below the line as a pass blocker according to PFF (53.2). So, the Steelers defense should have some favorable matchups they can hopefully win, even without star edge rusher T.J. Watt.
I also wanted to provide blocking numbers on the team level, using ESPN’s pass and run block win rates:
Generally, ESPN agrees with the PFF player stats, with the strengths and weakness when looking at the teams as a whole. Pittsburgh’s PBWR ranks 7th in the NFL, a great feat I doubt any of us saw happening, and knock on wood this continues. Their RBWR is below the mean and ranks 18th currently. The Jets sit right at the mean with the 15th rank in RBWR, but a much lower PBWR that ranks 26th that gives additional context to the player stats from earlier.
Let’s close with the defenses, and look at the ESPN win rates against the run and pass for that side of the ball:
This visual highlights the strength of the New York’s team defense, especially in stopping the run with the 11th rank in RSWR. They are also near the mean in PBWR at 19th. Pittsburgh lands below the mean in both data points as a defense, with a particularly low mark in RBWR that ranks 29th in the NFL. Have to step up against this banged up offensive line for the Jets in hopes of victory. In terms of PBWR, the Steelers rank 21st and are obviously missing the stellar presence of Watt. Hopefully this is one of the key factors they capitalize on in hopes of limiting the run game and making Zach Wilson uncomfortable. Pittsburgh linebacker Myles Jack leads the team with 35 combined tackles, two for a loss, along with a pass deflection through three weeks. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick leads the team with two touchdowns, one for a pick six and second on the team with 24 combined tackles. Highsmith is tied for third with linebacker Devin Bush in combined tackles (20), with the former providing four tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, and a forced fumble to complement his league-lead in sacks (4.5).
From a player stats perspective for the Jets, linebacker C.J. Mosley is a great player and familiar as a former Raven. He leads the team comfortably as a solid tackler with 30 combined on the year, two for a loss along with a fumble recovery. Fellow linebacker Quincy Williams is second on the team with 18 combined tackles along with a tackle for loss, and quarterback hit, but he will miss the game with an ankle injury. The Jet’s safety tandem is strong, especially as tacklers with Jordan Whitehead having 17 combined along with two passes defensed and Lamarcus Joyner combining for 16 tackles, and two quarterback hits which is an element I hope the Steelers have prepped the running backs and tight ends for in pass pro considering their up and down results this season. Gardner has shown good things in coverage as a rookie, particularly with four passes defensed along with 12 combined tackles and one for a loss.
This brings up another key stat, turnover differential. Pittsburgh has the clear upper hand so far this season, ranking fifth in the NFL with a +3 number (six takeaways on defense and three turnovers on offense). New York has three takeaways as a defense, and have turned the ball over seven times with three interceptions and four fumbles, giving them the second worst differential of -4 through three weeks. Really hoping Pittsburgh’s defense can return to a similar form of their week one dominance in the takeaway department to hopefully get back in the win column this weekend.
Who do you think will get the win on Sunday? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!