The 5: Steelers key factors in matchup with Buccaneers

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.

Ahead of the Week 6 showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there are a slew of injury concerns for the black and gold, as well as questions about potential changes head coach Mike Tomlin referenced in his press conference earlier this week.

The talk about Tom Brady‘s return – not as a menace from New England, but a wily veteran from Florida – is a hot topic around water coolers, break rooms, and plenty of fan forums. The media will practically be tripping over themselves to bring up how Brady harassed the Steelers over the years.

The thing to take away from those conversations is this: Brady today is not the same as Brady in the past. He isn’t error free, he isn’t nearly as mobile, but he’s got enough experience to tear weak defenses to pieces… and that’s where the Steelers are ailing the most, unfortunately, heading into Sunday’s game at Acrisure Stadium.

Breaking a bit from out traditional 5 Steelers players to watch, this week we’re focused on key factors that Pittsburgh will be required to address in order to climb out of the hole they find themselves in.

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Being accountable in the defensive backfield

The injury report illustrates a major concern the Steelers have ahead of them. Who will they dress and put on the field in place of their traditional starters at corner and safety should those starters be unavailable?

Minkah Fitzpatrick (knee), Cameron Sutton (hamstring), Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring), Levi Wallace (concussion), and Terrell Edmunds (concussion) were all on the injury report this week. While Fitzpatrick was able to play, somewhat, through the injury against the Buffalo Bills, he’s not 100 percent. Wallace was able to get limited time in practice on Thursday. Edmunds has been a full participant in practices this week.

The important thing, regardless of who starts or plays in this game, is how those players on the field finish. That will require much more accountability from individuals in coverage and assignments than they showed in Week 5 when the Bills burned the defensive backfield over and over again.

The Steelers have Miles Killebrew, Tre Norwood, and James Pierre on the depth chart – with Arthur Maulet as the “nickle” – but they didn’t get a good return, per se, from their second-tier last week. They’ll need everyone to dig much deeper to prevent Brady from turning the game into an air show.

Putting pressure on the line

This section’s heading has a double meaning. The Steelers need to put the pressure they’re feeling on the line to be successful, but they also need their defense – as a whole and up front – to put pressure on the Buccaneers’ offensive line.

Cameron Heyward said pretty much everything that needed to be said about the Steelers defense and what they needed, especially from the defensive line and edge rushers, to keep the game from getting out of their control on Sunday.

It’s going to take a whole-team effort from the Steelers in order to create opportunities to challenge Brady and the Tampa Bay offense. That requires turning the pressure they feel into pressure exerted against their opponents.

“It’s going to be challenge to get after (Brady). But we have to make sure we’re doing the right things,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin told the media on Thursday. “We’re not going to fool him. We know that. So, we’ve got to try to generate the rush the best way we can. Sometimes, you take chances. Sometimes you don’t.”

The interior linebackers, including Myles Jack, Robert Spillane, and Devin Bush should not be required to fall into coverage as much as they have been if the Steelers’ defensive front keeps their eyes on the prize: keeping Brady bottled up and the run game limited.

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Attention to detail by the receivers

Pittsburgh got a morale boost when rookie Kenny Pickett was named as their starting quarterback. Pickett, who set records in his first career NFL start, wasn’t given enough support, however, from his receivers to overcome the deficits against the Bills. That has to change this weekend.

While fellow rookie George Pickens has shown a willingness to block, run routes and adjust in-play, and make combat catches, Pickett hasn’t had that same level of commitment from Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool since he became the “starter.”

That isn’t to say that Johnson and Claypool are not talented players. They are. Unfortunately, they haven’t played to the level they’ve displayed in the past… and a renewed attention to detail would improve the Steelers’ ability to move the ball down field offensively.

Johnson has a hip injury that is limiting him, but that doesn’t explain dropped passes that should have been completions. On that same note, Claypool has been healthy but he hasn’t shown consistency that would give Pickett more confidence in throwing to him.

With the tight end situation in the air this week due to injuries to Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry, the Steelers may call on Connor Heyward to play more snaps.

Regardless of whether there is less tight end usage against the Bucs, or not, the receivers – as a group – need to be on point for the entirety of this game.

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Improved confidence through chemistry on offense

As much as fans have complained about the short passing game, bubble screens, jet sweeps, and lack of rushing success, the reason for not going deep more often is based on success rate. Success comes, on those passing plays, once there is confidence between the quarterback and his teammates.

Chemistry is not something Matt Canada can create for the players on the field, no matter how much blame is placed on him or the Steelers coaching staff in general. His responsibility is to give them opportunities to execute and adapt.

The offensive line has improved to the point that Pickett isn’t constantly being dragged to the turf. They still need to be smart about playing their assignments and not drawing unnecessary penalties.

Moving forward, including this week against Tampa Bay, the line will need to coordinate and communicate even more as a unit to improve lanes for Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren to exploit in the run game.

Harris and Warren are a complimentary duo who, if given the opportunity to work in tandem, present a challenge to this Buccaneers defense.

The run game is meant to open the passing game, and this week is a great opportunity to utilize a two-pronged attack with both rushers more than capable in handling passes as well.

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Be special on special teams again

The Steelers have had some spectacular moments on special teams; some were just spectacularly bad. The usually steady Chris Boswell watched the wind catch field goal attempts and prevent points from being placed on the scoreboard. Kicking compatriot Pressley Harvin III has booted some big punts and shanked others to the absolute frustration of teammates, coaches, and fans.

When the coverage team has done well, the receiving team has broken down. There haven’t been many game-changing plays from either squad this season.

Once again, inconsistency pops up in describing the Steelers’ play. Danny Smith wants the special teams to be special again, and he’ll get a lot more adoration than head-shaking from staff and fans if he can get the players under him to focus on limiting the Buccaneers’ field position this weekend.


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