Ed. Note: We are back, for now. As of this moment the plan is to add more content from some other people in addition to myself. Perhaps a podcast or two (one is currently in the works — but at the very early stages of development) as well. This is the first of a series (hopefully) previewing the 2016 Steelers games. As we go through the season I hope to give you my thoughts every week (when time allows) and I hope to publish some guest content for the first time in OTL history. So anyway…read on.
The Steelers open the 2016 season on Monday night, meaning Steelers fans have to watch 28 other loser franchises battle in a race for second place before the Steelers even see the field.
I’d love to keep up the facade of the first paragraph and tell you why the Steelers are a lock for Super Bowl contention, but I’m not going to. It’s not because I don’t think they can get there. It’s because until I see the defense in action, I can’t trust that they can be good enough to win it all.
STEELERS ON OFFENSE
With either Le’Veon Bell or Martavis Bryant on the field this wouldn’t be a problem. Even though the Steelers love to spend the first month of the season in a conservative shell while the experiment with the offense and learn what they have and what their weaknesses are, I would predict a lot of points if the offense is at full strength.
But it’s not. It’s not even close. Losing Bryant means Markus “One Game” Wheaton becomes the de facto #2 receiver (and he’s out for the opener with a shoulder injury). Losing Bell means the need to rely on an aging DeAngelo Williams once again.
But those aren’t the only two losses for this offense, they’ll be without free agent acquisition Ladarius Green as he is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list with a concussion of the ankle. So if you’re following along that’s three starters missing, one of which is arguably the best running back in the NFL, one is the straw that stirs the Steelers offensive drink by forcing teams to not sit on routes and respect the deep ball, and the other is a genuine move tight end, a position employed by the Steelers for the first time ever this season.
Without them Ben’s weapons are the always amazing Antonio Brown, two inexperienced first year receivers in Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers, journeyman speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey, white tight end Jesse James, the aforementioned DeAngelo Williams and a cast of misfit backups at RB and TE that won’t threaten anyone, not even the Steelers defense.
To say this game will come down to which quarterback plays better seems simple enough. And that should be Ben, given that his offensive line is *knock wood* completely healthy and finally a team strength. Plus, you know…Ben is great. But with the way the Steelers love to “ease in” to games (and seasons) and the fact that they’re missing two of their most explosive and dynamic offensive weapons, this game should worry every Steelers fan.
Most Important Non-Big Ben Player: Eli Rogers
If the young slot receiver can become a security blanket for Ben, and force Washington to account for him, it should open up the field for Antonio Brown.
Matchup To Watch: Antonio Brown Vs. ????
Will Washington try to match Josh Norman and Antonio Brown one-on-one? I sure hope so. There is no way that Josh Norman can cover AB one-on-one. Very few people can. The last time we saw Brown shutdown in a game was against Richard Sherman who held, interfered with, and illegal chucked Brown all game with minimal, if any, calls going Brown’s way. Norman won’t be able to do that. So I expect Washington to double and maybe even triple team Brown. If this happens, expect Sammie Coates to have a big game, assuming the Sammie Coates of the 2015 playoffs shows up rather than the Sammie Coates of the 2016 preseason.
STEELERS ON DEFENSE
I told everyone who would listen last year that they weren’t going to be as bad as expected. I was half right. The secondary was better than most believed they could be. The front seven was worse. Sadly I think that trend continues this year.
The defensive line should be much better with the addition of 3rd round draft pick Javon Hargrave (a guy I was touting as one of my favorites in the draft, toot toot) and veteran backup Ricardo Matthews who looked great in the preseason. But the outside linebacker position, the most important position in a 3-4 defense, sucks.
Last year’s first round pick Bud Dupree is on IR after having surgery. Jarvis Jones is terrible, Arthur Moats is Just A Guy, Anthony Chickillo is still developing a pulse, and James Harrison’s football age matches the number he wears on his jersey. Harrison is by far the best of a very mediocre bunch. Maybe I’ll be wrong and Jarvis Jones, one of the worst athletes ever selected in the first round of the NFL draft, will have a monster season. I doubt it, but I guess Stranger Things (Ed. Note: Barb is the worst character) have happened.
Against Washington they will find themselves up against a team whose weaknesses they may struggle to exploit and whose strengths they may struggle to slow down.
Washington’s offensive line is simply alright. They’re not great, but the Steelers don’t have the horses at OLB to take advantage. Maybe Javon Hargrave shows up big under the national spotlight. Maybe Cam Heyward’s ankle is 100%. But maybe neither happen and Kirk Cousins shreds the Steelers defense while assuring them that they do, in fact, like that.
In the run game, I don’t think the Steelers have much to worry about. But against the pass? Desean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Jordan Reed all provide potential problems for the Steelers secondary. Washington fans have been raving about Jamison Crowder, a midget who will play slot receiver. They expect Crowder to be their secret weapon (probably because he’s practically an ant) and convert first downs for their team at-will.
With the right gameplan (any one that allows Kirk Cousins time to find the receiver who will inevitably be wide open on the play), Washington’s offense can put up big points. The question will be, can the Steelers defense slow them down just enough — or at the exact right time — to allow their offense to carry them to victory?
Most Important Non-Ryan Shazier Defender: Sean Davis
If the rookie cornerback-turned-safety-turned-nickel-back can slow down Washington’s tight end Jordan Reed, the Steelers defense should be able to hold steady just enough to give the Steelers offense some margin-for-error.
Matchup To Watch: James And Jarvis Vs. Trent Williams
James Harrison typically eats the lunch of any big, slow tackle he faces. Williams isn’t slow by any means, but his height gives Harrison the ability to duck under him with minimal effort. James is also one of the strongest pass rushers in the NFL, if he can use his size correctly, he could make Kirk Cousins’ life miserable. As for Jarvis, well, I’ll just be happy if gets within arms reach of Cousins at any point.
FINAL PREDICTION: Steelers either win or lose by a field goal.