By Christopher DiMarino
For the first time this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers earned a victory with conviction in a game that wasn’t a cakewalk. This game played out how I would have thought it would had you asked me before the season started. A stout run defense took away the spark that made the Washington Redskins so successful. Ben Roethlisberger was efficient in picking apart the weak Redskins secondary. The Steelers defense was able to stall drives which lead to field goals rather than touchdowns. The Steelers power running game topped 100 yards and set the pace for the game.
Jonathan Dwyer had his second consecutive big game and the offense had zero turnovers. Roethlisberger didn’t have a record day like I thought, but he ran an efficient offense. He didn’t focus on any one receiver like past teams have done against the Redskins, but instead he spread the ball around. The defense was stagnant once again in generating turnovers and was only able to register one lone sack by Larry Foote. However, if the unit can hold a team to 12 points and contain a rushing offense averaging over 150 yards a game to almost half of that, it’s hard to scold them. The special teams disappointed once again and it culminated in a big punt return that was called back.
You can reference my competition analysis to learn a little more about the competition below:
The Steelers passing offense has climbed up to 7th in total yards and it will need to bring its best into New York against the 26th ranked pass D. The Giants passing defense is not stopping opposing offenses, but they are able to apply pressure, especially if their offense gets a lead. The Giants are allowing the 2nd most big plays in the league of 20+ and 40+ yards. To offset, the Giants boast a league leading 21 interceptions to accompany their 7th ranked sack total. Football Outsiders bumps up their pass defense to 10th, and while they are poor against #1 and slot receivers, they are great against #2\'s, tight ends and running backs.
The Giants have a decent group on defense. The secondary is a mix of young and average. Corey Webster is decent starter and while Prince Amukamara is getting better, but hasn’t peaked yet. Michael Coe and rookie Jayron Hosley round out their group of corners. Antrel Rolle and Chase Blackburn are two essential pieces to this defense that might not play on Sunday. Safety Stevie Brown leads the team with 5 picks while linebacker Michael Boley has 3 picks of his own. The key to this defense is the defensive line. Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Linval Joseph are all dynamic and talented. While Tuck has been in a slump, Pierre-Paul has 5.5 sacks and a pick 6, Joseph has 4 sacks and Umenyiora has 3.
Lets not forget that this is a defense that has accumulated a 6-2 record. While their excellent and clutch offense is mainly to credit for that, the Giants defense is no slouch. They were able to limit San Francisco and Carolina to under 10 points. They also looked particularly good against the Cowboys last week until Tony Romo went off in the 2nd half. Roethlisberger has not had an issue with protection this year, but this unit will truly test it. I think that they will get to him at times with pressure, but his typical Roethlisberger magic will kick in. If he can buy himself time, he will stretch and dismantle this defense.
The Giants 19th ranked run defense will get to square off against the ominous position that is the Steelers running back. Dwyer has boosted the newly effective Steelers running game up to the 21st ranked, but he is out, as is of this game as is Rashard Mendenhall, so Isaac Redman is expected to be back in action.
The Giants are allowing 4.6 yards per carry (5th worst) to go along with their 113 yard a game average. The flip side is that running backs have only scored 5 times on this unit and they have forced just as many fumbles. I think this one will come down to the Steelers offensive line. They have been great over the past few weeks at opening up gaps to run thru. When Dwyer has hit them hard, he has been successful, so Redman needs to follow suit. If Todd Haley can keep the play calling fresh and random enough, the Steelers should be able to catch the over pursuing Giants defensive front and sting them with some big runs, no matter who carries the rock.
The Steelers were able to shore up the run defense last week in a big way. The concern is that this success came in Heinz Field, while the Steelers defense hasn’t traveled so well. The passing defense has been unable to blanket cover or generate enough pressure to be successful. For a quarterback like Eli Manning, that combination can be deadly. Lets not forget that the Steelers have surrendered more than a couple late comebacks which happens to be Eli’s specialty. Eli has a QB rating of 89.1 on the season and his 62.6% completion percentage has led him to the 6th ranked 2301 yards. He has been picked off 8 times (compared to his 12 TDs) but his 6 sacks are a league minimum. The Giants 7.8 yards average per play is the 6th best in the league.
The Steelers oddly enough boast the #1 ranked pass defense in yards against but the Giants 6th ranked unit is equally as adept. Victor Cruz will likely get the attention of Ike Taylor because Hakeem Nicks hasn’t done enough to show that he is back to 100%. I worry about Dominique Hixon, who is an under the radar type of player that can burn you deep or underneath. The Giants offensive line might not be great at opening up running holes, but they are great at pass defense. The Steelers need to get pressure on Manning or else this secondary won’t stand a chance.
The Steelers play deep protect which should help against big plays and Cruz has been known for them. Ryan Clark and Will Allen will need to continue their excellent play and make the Giants earn every point. To throw out another wild card, I would watch out for Martellus Bennett. He has had a quietly effective year, and the Steelers have not been particularly great shutting down tight ends. I say this because Lawrence Timmons hasn’t been elite at covering tight ends, and Bennett is big, fast and has suspect, but effective hands.
The Giants are a team that struggles to run the ball. However, with a passing attack as potent as theirs, they are the benefit of catching opposing defenses in protect mode. The teams who have had success against the Giants are able to stymie the run with their base group and focus on pass protecting. The Steelers defensive line has improved its play and will have another chance to prove its ability against a below average run blocking offensive line. Make no mistake, the Giants are still ranked 12th in total rushing yards for and they have 10 rushing TDs on the season. The Steelers need to be ready for whoever comes to play, whether it be Ahmad Bradshaw (who is questionable), Andre Brown or rookie David Wilson.
I think that the Steelers are getting back on track. I can’t be so naive to think that they should be favored to win this one, but I would easily argue that this will be a close one. If anything, I think this will be a good test for the Steelers to be able to close out close games and possibly even come from behind. They will have the ability to get back into this one if they fall behind, but the Giants defense is built to maintain leads. This Giants defense isn’t highly ranked in many categories and they are particularly bad at stopping long drives. If the Giants can generate sacks and turnovers, the Steelers might struggle, but seeing that the Steelers offense hasn’t been laden with sacks or picks to this point, I will give the Steelers offense the nod.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers have stepped up in recent weeks. The Giants are a special offense and the Steelers will need to play outside of themselves to shut them down. That being said, if the Steelers can stop the run effectively and focus on the pass, they may be able to bait Manning into some mistakes. Sacks will be hard to come by and the Giants have a lot of great targets, so this game might end up being a high scoring affair. I think the Steelers will be able to employ their typical time of possession offense behind some hard running. While The Giants offense can score on any play, I think if Roethlisberger is better than his 2004 draft mate at prolonging drives.
This could be a day where Mike Wallace gets to practice his deep ball moves, but Haley hasn’t play called that way just yet. He wants drives that take up time and give the Steelers defense rest, hence their inflated rankings. Antonio Brown should be able to carve up Amukamara and as long as Roethlisberger avoids Stevie Brown, explosive plays should be available. I’ll say it once again, if the Steelers struggle to run, it will make it hard for them to stay competitive. They can’t have fundamental issues like that in big stakes games like this. While the Steelers have rebounded and against poor and average teams, this game will be a true test to see which Steelers we have at this point. While a loss isn’t the end of the world, the fashion in which they lose can make or break the rest of their season. The Steelers need to play close game football for 60 minutes. They can’t get too far behind or too comfortable with any amount of lead.