The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 2016 regular season Monday night against the Washington Redskins and below are seven things that I believe the team will need to do in order to come away with a road win.
Run right, right from the start – Even through the Steelers offense figures to be able to have one of the league’s top passing attacks in 2016, they must not forget to establish some threat of a running game earlier on in their contests and especially in Monday night’s opener against the Redskins. For starters, former Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood will start on the left side Monday night for the Redskins and that should be a tasty matchup for Steelers right guard David DeCastro. Additionally, starting nose tackle Kedric Golston enters the game as questionable with a back problem so center Maurkice Pouncey figures to be able to push him around on running plays as well. On top that, Redskins backup defensive lineman Kendall Reyes also enters Monday night’s game as questionable with a groin injury that appears to have taken place this week during a practice. All of this should add up to quite a few early-game opportunities for Steelers veteran running back DeAngelo Williams. Once the running game is hopefully established early in the game, it could ultimately play a part in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hitting a few deep passes off of play action.
Visit Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood – Like most of you, I’m excited to see what second-year wide receiver Eli Rogers can do Monday night in his NFL regular season debut. Rogers, who will likely see quite a few snaps in the slot Monday night, appears to be ripe for a productive first game at a position he played so very well while at Louisville. Add to that the fact that Rogers is likely to line up several times against an unproven nickel cornerback in the form of either Kendall Fuller or Dashaun Phillips and it’s easy to see why Roethlisberger might not need to force the football to wide receiver Antonio Brown outside the hash marks in this contest.
No crying because of Jordan – Redskins tight end Jordan Reed is the same kind of player the Steelers hoped they added to their roster back in March when they signed free agent Ladarius Green. Reed, however, is a lot more accomplished than Green currently is and is a threat wherever he lines up at as he’s virtually a wide receiver playing the tight end position. Last season, Reed produced a team-high 14 explosive plays of 20 yards or more for the Redskins and his 24 third down receptions were second only to wide receiver Pierre Garcon. Six of those third down catches resulted in touchdowns, which easily led the Redskins offense in that statistical category. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers defense schemes Monday night when it comes to them attempting to take away Reed as a receiving option and it appears as though rookie safety Sean Davis will have quite a few cracks at doing just that.
Cousins likes that blitzing – If I were Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler, I wouldn’t necessarily blitz Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins a lot Monday night unless down and distance really calls for it. Last season, Cousins completed 67.6% of his passes against the blitz with 9 touchdowns. Cousins thrives on getting the football out quickly and that’s evidenced by his 78.3 completion percentage on all passes thrown less than 10 yards, and that includes throws to players behind the original line of scrimmage. Making Cousins throw the football down the field is advisable as that appears to be the weakest part of his game. Merely sitting back defensively with the cornerbacks playing off is just inviting Cousins to paper cut the Steelers defense to death.
No Jonesing for yards – The Redskins running game isn’t great on paper and thus the Steelers defensive front will be expected to limit the ground yards of starting running back Matt Jones, who has battled back from a preseason shoulder injury. The Redskins running back group of Jones, Chris Thompson and Robert Kelley enter the 2016 regular season ranked last in the league by Pro Football Focus. Limiting the Redskins running game early on in this contest will hopefully put their offense in predictable down and distance situations throughout the night and that’s when Butler will be able to send more numbers after Cousins with hopes that he’ll either throw short of the sticks in order to avoid the rush, or better, force the football where it doesn’t need to go which increases the likelihood of an interception.
Tackle them dummies – Over the course of the last few seasons, the Steelers defense has had more than their fair share of missed tackles and this past offseason the organization bought a few robots to hopefully aid in improving that specific area. Limiting yards after the catch and after first contact on running plays is hidden yardage that can make a big difference in whether or not a team wins or loses a game. The Redskins have some elusive pass catchers who can easily turn a five-yard catch over the middle into a 20-yard gain and thus this Monday night game will be an excellent litmus test when it comes to seeing how the tackling abilities of several Steelers players are.
Need a Berry good night of punting – Steelers punter Jordan Berry had a fantastic preseason as his 13 punts averaged 50.6 yards with a net average of 45.2 yards. 4 of those were inside the 20 yard-line of the Steelers opponents. It’s been a long time since the Steelers have had a punter that was considered a weapon and a few field-flippers Monday night by Berry could go a long way in helping the team leave FedExField with a victory.