The Pittsburgh Steelers look to begin the process of stacking several wins on Sunday at Heinz Field against the Washington Redskins and below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is the Wednesday podcast preview of the game that features a great interview with Redskins beat writer Mike Jones of the Washington Times.
Ground The Ground Attack - Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and fellow rookie running back Alfred Morris have already combined to rush for over 1100 yards so far this season. The Redskins can run well out of all their formations, which sometimes includes an inverted wishbone look. If that is not enough, their offense has shown on tape and in the stats that they can run well in any direction. The Redskins offense stays incredible balanced on first down. On 113 first down rushing plays so far this season they have averaged 4.98 yards per rush. This has enabled them to stay ahead of the chains, which in turn allows Griffin III to be that much more effective through the air. The Steelers front five must stay gap sound and both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will really be tested in their ability to set the edge and force the rookie quarterback back to help inside when he carries the ball. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons could very well wind up being the biggest factor in this game defensively for the Steelers if he is used the same way that he was used in the game against the Philadelphia Eagles and quarterback Michael Vick. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau always preaches that stopping the run is the number one priority in every game and his defense will be severely tested in that area this week. Expect LeBeau to play a lot of cover-1 and cover-3 in this game in attempt to keep an extra safety down low in the box for run support. I am going to go Captain Obvious here and say the Steelers must stop the run in order to win this game.
Skin The YAC - When the Redskins offense is not running the ball they will rely on a short passing game used mostly off of play-action in order to let Griffin III get the ball out quick without having to make too many reads. Well over 50% of the Redskins passing yards this season have come after the catch and it ranks them easily in the top 5 in the league in that stat. The Steelers defense prides itself on tackling the catch quickly, and if accomplished Sunday, it will take away a lot of the Redskins hidden yards on offense.
Turn RG3 Into RG1 - The goal in this game defensively should be to force Griffin III to be one dimensional by getting him to throw into the intermediate or deep areas of the field as much as possible. Jumping out to an early lead in the game will certainly help in this area, but keeping the rookie quarterback behind the chains will help even more should that not happen. If the Redskins offense is allowed to spend the day in second and short and third and short situations, it could make for a long day defensively for the Steelers. Griffin III has only thrown 3 interceptions so far this season and the best chance the Steelers will likely have to pick off a pass will be by forcing him away from his short area comfort zones.
Tread Into Deeper Water - You know that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is itching to throw deep more and Sunday against the Redskins defense he might just get the opportunity to do it. So far this season the Redskins secondary has been victimized several times to the deep middle and deep right areas of the field, where they have allowed an average gain of 21.62 and 16.10 yards respectively and completion percentages of over 57%. The Redskins try to mix up their coverages in an attempt to roll down a safety at times and that is when they are most vulnerable. Cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson and Cedric Griffin will have their hands full with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders so explosive plays should be at a premium. Roethlisberger has to make sure to be accurate when these shots are there, and more importantly, the receivers make the catches. I am of course pointing at Wallace here.
Stay Heathy - Tight end Heath Miller is off to a torrid start and he should have plenty of room to work Sunday at Heinz Field. There is no way that Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, if he plays, can run with Miller in man coverage, so this onus will fall on either a safety or inside linebacker Perry Riley. The Redskins defense must pick their poison in this game. They can choose to defend the deep pass with two safeties providing help, or defend Miller on early downs with a linebacker or safety. The multiple use of zone looks by the Redskins defense should be shredded by Miller and Roethlisberger in this game.
Fletch Out The Offense - I mentioned Fletcher above as I truly believe he will attempt to play Sunday in order to keep his consecutive game streak alive. Father Time has hawked the veteran linebacker down and he is currently having balance issues to go along with a bad hamstring. While I do not expect the Steelers running game to have the same amount of success that they had last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, I do expect them to run Jonathan Dwyer at Fletcher in this game and get offensive linemen bodies on him in the second level. Should Fletcher rotate out, or not play at all, he will be replaced by Lorenzo Alexander or rookie Keenan Robinson and those are two inexperienced bodies that should be worked on extensively as well. Just because the passing game on Sunday should be there for the Steelers offense, doesn\'t mean that the running game can\'t have some moderate success as well, even if it only helps set up some big pass plays from Roethlisberger.
Be Egregiousless - Penalties on special teams have wiped out several nice returns by both Brown and Chris Rainey the last few weeks and head coach Mike Tomlin has laid down the law that the egregious penalties must stop. Cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke will likely feel the wrath of Tomlin Sunday as it looks like safety Damon Cromartie-Smith, who was promoted to the 53 man roster on Saturday, will get his special teams helmet against the Redskins. The Steelers special team units as a whole have been disappointing so far this season and they can turn it around Sunday by forcing a turnover or setting up some big game-changing returns by either Brown or Rainey. Make no mistake, any special teams player that is not a starter on defense that gets flagged in this game is at risk of losing a helmet in future games. Penalties kill.
Prediction - Griffin III could very well be the most complete rookie quarterback that LeBeau has faced in his NFL career as a defensive coordinator. The ability to contain him and Morris on the ground will certainly be a key factor in this game. Should the Steelers defense not be able to do this, it could wind up being a race to see who can get to 40 points first. The Steelers offense should have no problems moving the ball through the air in this game against a bad Redskins pass defense and they want to force the rookie to keep up by making him air it out instead of running his conventional offense to do it. I think that Timmons is primed for another game like he had against the Eagles and LeBeau will do everything in his power to tempt the Baylor product to win the game with his arm and not his legs. It is not a fluke that LeBeau has been so successful against rookie quarterbacks and I think Griffin gets his name added to the loser list as a result. This one will be close heading into the fourth quarter, but I think the Steelers defense makes a big play and the offense capitalizes on it to close it out to make it look lopsided. I also think that the weather and field conditions could play a roll in this game in addition.
Final Score - Steelers 31 Redskins 19