The 5: Steelers to watch against the New York Jets

Every week, ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ games, Steel City Underground will analyze the depth chart, injury reports, and key matchups against their upcoming opponent in order to point out “The 5” – Steelers players to watch.

The Pittsburgh Steelers face a grueling gauntlet ahead of them after their upcoming Week Four matchup with the New York Jets at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh will be on the road against the Buffalo Bills, host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then travel to face the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles before their “bye” in NFL Week Nine.

The Steelers have a lot of issues to address going into their Sunday showdown against the Jets, and Pittsburgh doesn’t have a lot of runway to work with before they take off into what is perhaps the toughest part of their schedule. Going into Sunday’s game, we look at five Steelers to watch for.

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Levi Wallace

It is obvious to anyone with eyes that the Steelers defense has struggled as a unit since T.J. Watt went down with a pectoral injury against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week One. The pass rush isn’t getting home, the run defense is swiss cheese, and the secondary has worse coverage than T-Mobile.

While plenty of blame can be placed on the offense for their inability to sustain drives and give the defense proper rest throughout games, just remember, when you go pointing fingers, you have three fingers pointing back at you.

One player in particular that has struggled out of the gate in 2022 is CB Ahkello Witherspoon who, when targeted this season, has allowed 13/18 receptions, 155 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT for a QBR of 112. Struggling may be an understatement – Witherspoon is on track to be best-suited to dress up as a piece of burnt toast for Halloween if this trend continues.

Unfortunately, Witherspoon will have to wait at least one week for his redemption tour to begin as he is sidelined with a hamstring injury this week against the Jets.

This will allow free agent acquisition Levi Wallace to step in and cover for the struggling Witherspoon. The fifth-year player out of Alabama will have his hands full on Sunday with rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson looking to begin construction on a connection with his quarterback, Zach Wilson.

Wallace was the odd-man-out in Buffalo before landing in Pittsburgh during free agency. Sunday is a big opportunity for the former undrafted free agent to cement a spot for himself in the Steel City.

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Montravius Adams

It was announced earlier this week that DT Montravius Adams will be starting over DT Tyson Alualu. Alualu has been struggling to start the year, perhaps still not 100% and recovering from his offseason knee surgery, and/or father time is knocking on the door of the 12-year veteran.

Alualu does not appear to have the same push or generate the same pressure he has in previous years for the Black and Gold, while showing himself to be a liability in run defense.

In his place, Adams earned the start, the sixth-year veteran who joined the Steelers part-way through last year’s campaign – when their Defensive Line depth became dangerously scarce – and performed well in the five games he played for Pittsburgh in 2021.

While Adams may not be the future at the DT position for the Steelers, neither is Alualu and with the overall performance by the defense in recent weeks. Swapping in Adams for Alualu on Sunday versus the Jets may give a spark to a Steelers defensive front seven who have been alarmingly low-wattage since the unfortunate absence of the reigning DPOY.

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Alex Highsmith

If you told Steelers fans during the offseason that one their outside linebackers would begin the year leading the league in sacks, with 4.5 going into Week Four, I don’t think many people would be surprised.

The surprising part would be that the name their looking for is not T.J. Watt, but Alex Highsmith. Highsmith, along with Myles Jack and Minkah Fitzpatrick have been the few bright spots on a Steelers defense that has been struggling to get off the field since they went off in Week One.

Highsmith leads the league with 4.5 sacks so far, already approaching his career-high of 6 sacks. While Highsmith is showing the development as a pass rusher that the Steelers were hoping for when they drafted him to replace Bud Dupree, he is now finding himself in a Watt-like situation where he is being focused-on and needs help from the other pass rushers to create some consistent pressure.

Going into Sunday’s matchup against the Jets, “Gang Green” will be missing their starting left and right tackles – a pass rushers dream.

Keep an eye out for #56 to be in the backfield early and often. Unfortunately for the Steelers, they will not have the luxury of facing the stone statue that is Joe Flacco one more time, but rather will need to chase around the athletic Zach Wilson on Sunday which is sure to negate some of the sacks Flacco would have otherwise taken.

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Pat Freiermuth

While a lot of the discussion and frustrations surrounding the Steelers offense have revolved around Mitchell Trubisky and George Pickens, another question that Steelers fans have begun to ask themselves is why does Pat Freiermuth only exist in this offense when it’s late in the 4th quarter?

It’s an excellent question that I hope Matt Canada, and Trubisky, are asking themselves as the Steelers enter Week Four.

The Steelers offense needs to be better at putting the ball in the hands of their playmakers and letting them do the rest.

Last year, with the ghost of Ben Roethlisberger behind center, Freiermuth caught 76% of the passes thrown in his direction. So far, this year, with Trubisky at the helm, Freiermuth has caught 52% of his targets.

Like many of the critiques against the Steelers offense this season, it is difficult to decipher whether the blame belongs on the shoulders of Trubisky, Canada, or a combination of the two. However, one thing is clear – this ain’t working.

The Jets will be down starting LB Quincy Williams (ankle) this Sunday, leaving their starting linebacker core to be C.J. Mosely, Kwon Alexander, and Marcell Harris (who will presumably step in for the injured Williams). Not the fastest or best coverage group of linebackers that the Steelers have faced.

I know that Trubisky is terrified of throwing the ball across the middle of the field, but if he were to do so this Sunday against the Jets, I think he would find an open “MUUUUTH” ready to take advantage of the vulnerable center of this Jets defense.

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George Pickens

I will keep it short and sweet with what has become my weekly plea to get Pickens more involved in the offense.

The rookie wideout made an Odell Beckham Jr-like one-handed, lifelong highlight catch against the Browns on Thursday Night Football. Unfortunately, later in the game, Pickens appeared to show less than ideal effort on a play, attempting another one-handed catch, this time in the end zone, leading to an interception that was thankfully overturned upon review (the Browns defender was out of bounds).

Pickens had 7 targets on Thursday Night against the Browns, accumulating 3 receptions for 39 yards. Pickens on the year has 12 targets, 5 receptions for 65 yards (13 yards per reception, 41.7% catch%).

Outside of the poor form on the aforementioned end zone play, the lack of production from Pickens can be blamed on Trubisky, especially considering the 41.7 catch%. Pickens is the kind of athlete that takes 50/50 balls and turns them into 80/20 balls, yet here we are at 41.7.

Should Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada call more creative plays that get Pickens in space instead of asking him to run straight up go-routes most of the time? Absolutely. Should Trubisky throw better 50/50 balls for his freakishly athletic receivers so that they can try to make a play on the ball? Absolutely.

The Pittsburgh Steelers host the New York Jets on Sunday, October 2nd at 1:00 p.m. (Eastern) at Acrisure Stadium on CBS (broadcasters: Greg Gumbel on play-by-play and Adam Archuleta as analyst).

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