As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X-Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Here’s our X-Factor for Sunday’s regular season finale against the Baltimore Ravens.
X-FACTOR: Steelers’ Interior O-Line
If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to win this game, they have to run the ball. They’ve been able to find some traction. Not enough, nothing consistent but they’ve shown signs of life since a terrible Week One outing. But don’t overlook the New York Jets. That’s a tough bunch in the middle. They’re not like the Cleveland Browns. As we wrote in our scouting report, their strength is in the middle. There’s three dudes you gotta worry about: Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, and Solomon Thomas. Those three are eating up the middle this year.
Despite playing the AFC North gauntlet, already facing the Ravens, Browns, and Bengals, the Jets are allowing only 3.7 YPC, the league’s sixth best mark. They’ve played some of the best and most committed rushing attacks in football, playing behind in all three of those games, they’ve more than held their own. New York is at its best defending inside runs and that’s where Pittsburgh is trying to do its damage. With Najee Harris at running back, the Steelers aren’t often looking to get the ball out on the perimeter.
So that means the trio of LG Kevin Dotson, C Mason Cole, and RG James Daniels are going to have to play their best. The good news is al three are playing pretty well with Cole being one of the most consistent linemen and Dotson/Daniels taking big strides since the summer. All three created plenty of first-level movement Thursday night against the New York Jets. All three will need to to do it again. Can they sustain their double-team blocks and be able to climb to the next level without the defender shedding and making plays. Can they wash them down in the run game? Can they reach and cutoff the backside on zone schemes? All key questions.
It sounds so trite to say but Pittsburgh needs a strong running game. What they did in the first half against the Browns is the model. Their proof of concept. They’re capable of doing it. But they need to scale this run game and show they can do it for more than just a half. Slowly but surely, the run game has made strides with Harris’ yards per carry increasing game-by-game but he’s still sitting at 3.2 on the season. Of running backs with at least 35 carries, Harris has 40, only two have a lower YPC than Harris – Joe Mixon a 2.7 and Antonio Gibson at 3.1.
Tomorrow, they have to be at least above four yards per carry with Harris. That’ll keep them in third-and-manageable and hopefully, the offense will have more success converting. That’s a solid 1B for an X-Factor, especially given how bad the Jets are with their third down defense, third-worst in the league. But Pittsburgh’s offense still needs its running game. And that’ll be a challenge against the Jets’ tough front.