So, here we sit. Week 5 is upon us, and the Steelers are… 3-0?
For anyone unaware, Pittsburgh became the first NFL team to suffer collateral damage due to COVID-19, having their Week 4 match-up against Tennessee postponed due to a litany of Titans players and staff producing positive tests until as recently as yesterday. As a result, the Black & Gold were forced to take Week 4 off and will have 13 straight weeks of football ahead.
While Steelers players have clearly expressed their displeasure, Mike Tomlin said it best: “We do not care.” Neither does the Coronavirus. The precarious NFL season forges on, veiled in both hope and uncertainty.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will surely look to take out frustrations on their Keystone State brethren, the Philadelphia Eagles. Will they be successful? Most likely, but let’s break down some key points going into Sunday’s game anyway.
How Does the Early Bye Week Impact the Steelers?
Despite what the players have communicated, the early bye week could actually be a timely respite in such a unique NFL season. Without a preseason, NFL franchises are scrambling in a still-young season to experiment, self-scout, and evaluate their team while games actually MATTER. Are 13 straight games to end the regular season fair? Probably not. But, the San Francisco 49ers did it last year, and they made the Super Bowl. It can be done. What most teams CAN’T do is figure out what’s simply not working for them only three games into the season and implement meaningful, lasting potential solutions.
It also shouldn’t be understated that, amidst a litany of injuries league-wide, the Steelers have time to get healthy. Many have speculated that a lack of preseason football has led to a higher injury-risk for players, particularly when it comes to soft-tissue injuries. Key players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson have frequented the injury report. Other “healthy” players not being reported will have time to get closer to 100%. The Steelers experienced what essentially amounts to a preseason with built-in rest and reflection. Don’t overlook that. It may be more beneficial than you think.
What Looks Strategically Different Going Forward?
Continuing thoughts from earlier, what did the Steelers determine needs work? My guess is the running game. I have not been bashful about mentioning their struggles there. In Week 3 against the Texans, they heard me loud and clear, as a more consistent running game emerged from the Steelers victory. James Conner didn’t pad his stats with a single run this time around, instead churning out more consistent chunks of yardage. To my delight, rookie Anthony McFarland was also more involved, using his speed as a change of pace to Conner’s workman-like running style. The return of David DeCastro at right guard also aided Pittsburgh on inside runs and brought stability to their offensive front.
So, what changes in the running game from here on out? A closer look at the game plan against Houston reveals the implementation of strong right heavy sets which were nowhere to be found the week prior. What does this mean? In 10 plays during the Texans game, the Steelers brought in extra lineman Jerald Hawkins, placing him on the right end of the offensive line. This formation is great in short-yardage situations, as the offense can use an added big body to grind out some tough yardage on the ground. However, the Steelers surprisingly implemented the heavy set on 1st-and-10, and even had Roethlisberger pass from this formation with success.
Was this a one-game anomaly against a bad Houston run defense?
Possibly, but I doubt it. The timing of usage indicates to me that Pittsburgh will use this set to better marry their passing game to their running game. Big Ben operates primarily out of shotgun formation, which gives Pittsburgh’s bevy of offensive weapons more space to make plays.
However, with the Steelers experiencing some early-season scares against inferior teams, a more balanced offensive philosophy could start to emerge, particularly in the second half, as they try to control the clock and silence any late-game heroics by the opposition.
Wait…who are the Steelers Playing?
Oh… right. There’s the actual game to preview itself, isn’t there? I admittedly haven’t discussed the Philadelphia Eagles yet, have I? Perhaps that’s because the City of Brotherly Love’s football team has been an absolute DUMPSTER FIRE to start the season. The NFC East is the worst division in football thus far, and it isn’t particularly close. The Eagles lead (yes, LEAD) their division with a 1-2-1 record. Their division-leading ways amount to a participation trophy. Their offensive line (and offense, at-large) has been devastated by injuries yet again, and quarterback Carson Wentz has struggled to recapture his MVP-worthy form. Without adequate protection or anyone outside of tight end Zach Ertz to throw to, Eagles fans are quickly growing impatient with Wentz, justified or not.
A scarcity of offensive weapons. An ailing offensive line. A struggling franchise quarterback. Without even addressing the Eagles defense, It’s hard to argue that this isn’t setting up the Steelers for a feast coming out of an extra week of preparation, and I’ll leave it at that.
I’ll keep it short and sweet. Pittsburgh wins BIG for the first time this season.
Take THAT, towel-wavers!