Coming off of an all too close victory over the AFC North’s Cincinnati Bengals, the Seahawks make their way to the midwest for an away-game showdown with Bengals’ divisional foe, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers themselves are coming off of a not-too-close, 3-33 blowout loss to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. This Week 2 matchup shapes up as a get-right game for the Steelers and a tough challenge for our Seattle Seahawks.
Although Ben Roethlisberger & Co. put up a dud last week, the Steelers’ offense is loaded. A high-volume passing game that utilizes multipurpose running backs so as to not tip the hand of the play caller pre-snap, making Pittsburgh’s intentions difficult to diagnose. Roethlisberger is not the bulldozing, scrambling quarterback that he once was but his understanding of the game has more than made up for the toll Father Time has taken. His mind-meld connection with Doug Baldwin-esque No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is as good as it gets in professional football. It was thought that the departure of Antonio Brown would lead to more work on the outside for the promising 2018 Pro Bowler in Smith-Schuster. But last week showed us that this isn’t the case. Per Evan Silva of Establish The Run, Smith-Schuster ran 69% of his routes in the slot against the Patriots. That frequency may decrease, however, as the Steelers are home favorites and likely won’t be playing from behind like they did in New England, opting instead to continue his development on the outside of the formation against a more manageable opponent in Seattle. However, every snap he takes on the inside, he’s viable to exploit the Seahawks’ vulnerable interior. Last week, Bengals wide receivers routinely shredded Seattle’s slot coverage. The departure of last year’s slot corner, Justin Coleman, will be tough to recover from.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the Miami Dolphins have given do-it-all defender Minkah Fitzpatrick permission to seek a trade. According to Ian Rapoport, in the previously linked video, Fitzpatrick is unhappy with his role as a utility player and would prefer to man the slot full-time. How good is Fitzpatrick? According to Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus, “Minkah Fitzpatrick’s slot coverage grades, both in college and the NFL, are some of the highest [PFF] has even seen”. John Schneider should give him a long look.
Until a move is made though, JuJu Smith-Schuster is a problem we cannot ignore and it’s likely he pops in the box score this week. He’s primarily sidekicked by short-to-intermediate area stud Donte Moncrief. Moncrief had a rough outing last week but he sees plenty of targets and is a favorite of Ben Roethlisberger — the man who truly controls the Pittsburgh offense. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin should be up to the task of taking on Moncrief, however, 3-receiver sets figure to be a problem. Griffin can only do so much — backup slot man Ryan Switzer and deep-speed specialist James Washington are primed to give Seattle’s lackluster secondary fits. Expect Roethlisberger to carve Seattle up deep. Tedric Thompson looks utterly lost as our Earl Thomas “replacement.”
Although he was quiet last week, the hyper-athletic tight end Vance McDonald is a force to be reckoned with. The 6’4”, 267 lb 29-year old has wheels to spare and is an above-average pass catcher. K.J. Wright and Bradley McDougald will have their hands full.
The rest of the linebacking corps has a tall order ahead of them as well. Although the Steelers’ O-line isn’t on par with last year’s, it’s still a talented group. The 4-time Pro Bowl, 2-time All Pro Bellevue High School graduate and Seattle-area native David DeCastro leads the bunch that blocks for 2018 Pro Bowler and 2015 Hodgkins’ Lymphoma Beater, running back James Conner. The inspirational Conner showed well last season, filling in for holdout-running back Le’Veon Bell. Besting most of Bell’s career marks, Conner left the front office comfortable with moving on from the All Pro Bell. Although Conner didn’t light up the box score last week, he’s a sure bet to field 20+ touches as a homefield favorite. Conner has no real weaknesses as a player. He’s proficient in both pass catching and protection and is a lethal runner. Now another year removed from chemotherapy, he looks stronger and faster than ever. It’ll be a hard day’s work for Bobby Wagner. Aiding in the cause to stimmy Pittsburgh’s backfield is the likely debut of defensive end Ziggy Ansah. Ansah was expected by many to play last week, however, he ended up as an inactive. NFL teams can never have too much talent on the D-line and pairing him with Jadeveon Clowney take the Seahawks edge rushing capabilities to the next level.
Pete Carroll’s refusal to let Russell Wilson be the focal point of this offense will ultimately go down as the biggest issue of his coaching tenure. Last week, Chris Carson totaled more touches (21) than Wilson did pass attempts (20). That’s simply unacceptable, however, there’s reason for optimism regarding Wilson’s box score outlook this week. As Evan Silva noted, linebacker T.J. Watt, brother of Houston Texans stalwart J.J., and cornerback Joe Haden both suffered injuries last week against the Patriots. Information gathered from NBC’s Rotoworld tells us that Haden suffered an A.C. joint sprain (in his shoulder) and his status for Sunday’s game is completely up in the air. Haden’s potential absence would be hugely beneficial to D.K. Metcalf. While Cincinnati committed to slowing slot receiving dynamo, Tyler Lockett, Metcalf was given one-on-one chances downfield and the rookie responded with highlight reel day. Showing no ill signs of his knee cleanup in August, Metcalf looks like the real deal as a field stretcher in Seattle’s ground-and-pound-to-deep-shot offense. Regarding Watt, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin remains stoically optimistic that the linebacker can play. However, his practice availability has been up and down this week. His absence, or in-game limitation, would be a boon for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ passing game overall. Tyler Lockett is a candidate to bounce back after last week’s one-catch (a 44-yard touchdown) performance as defenses now have to account for D.K. Metcalf.
Although last week’s score prediction fell short of expectations, a topic we touched on did come to fruition: the incorporation of running backs into Seattle’s passing game. Chris Carson not only lead the Seahawks in targets (7), he finished the week tied as the 7th-most targeted running back in the league. As football savant Warren Sharp often says, passes to running backs on 1st and 2nd-down are the most efficient play in today’s NFL. This is a significant improvement on the ideologies of season’s past gives us something to look forward to as the organization moves at a glacial pace towards modernization.
Sunday’s 10 a.m. PST outing is not going to be easy. The Seahawks will need some luck to pull this one off. It’s likely they end Week 2 at 1-1. However, that could still result in them being tied for 1st in the NFC West. Arizona travels to Baltimore to square off with what appears to be a devastatingly revamped Ravens offense. San Francisco — a team on shaky legs — heads to Cincinnati to find out whether or not John Ross’s blowup game against us was a sign of things to come. Meanwhile, the Rams play host to the New Orleans Saints and their assuredly playoff bound roster. It wouldn’t at all be a surprise to see each team in the division take home an L this week.