The 5: Steelers to watch against the Philadelphia Eagles
The Pittsburgh Steelers travel in Week 8 of the 2022 NFL regular season across the state of Pennsylvania to face the unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Coming off of a loss to the Miami Dolphins that showcased a Steelers defense that kept Miami off the scoreboard in the entire second half of the game, Pittsburgh will once again be putting a lot of emphasis on limiting their opponent’s offense.
That isn’t to say the Steelers won’t be doing everything they can offensively to be competitive on the road. They have no choice but to perform at a new level if they are to keep the Eagles from turning the game into a runaway train.
This week, we look at players we feel are key Steelers’ to watch in this game.
It may seem obvious that the rookie quarterback is on this list. After all, the Steelers offense runs through him. What’s interesting, though, is that despite fan frustration with his progress (and not instantly winning every game), Pickett has shown a fire to push for improvement from himself and the teammates around him.
Against the Dolphins, Pickett didn’t lay down or play it safe in the final quarter of the game; he got the team into position for a potential victory. Unfortunately, the ball he threw towards receiver Diontae Johnson was intercepted and Johnson wasn’t in the right position to push the defender out of bounds and save the play as an incomplete pass.
“We’ve just got to get on the same page. It’s nothing (Kenny) did wrong… He was trying to throw the ball out of bounds and expected me to be in a certain spot. The guy made a play on the ball.” – Diontae Johnson
The key to helping Pickett progress with the entire offense growing as a unit isn’t to force things; the coaching staff want him to feel and read what defenses are presenting and use his accuracy, instincts, and a full arsenal of plays and options to protect the ball and put points on the scoreboard.
This makes Pickett especially worth watching in Week 8 as interviews given seemed to indicate that the young quarterback is going to be given more a more open playbook with more audibles.
“He is a competitor… Obviously, we’d like the outcomes to be different, but communicating with him professionally, watching him operate, watching his demeanor, his approach to those circumstances is exciting and refreshing.” – Mike Tomlin on Pickett
The tight ends
We’re lumping this group together because it’s highly likely that the Steelers take advantage of one area the Eagles defense can and has been exploited: the middle of the field against interior linebackers dropped into zone coverage and slot corners.
Josiah Scott and Avonte Maddox aren’t earning the same high marks as James Bradberry and Darius Slay on the outside and deep. Scott and Maddox (combined coverage) have allowed 18 completions for 197 yards.
The Eagles have allowed 29 completions to opposing tight ends for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
Whether it’s Pat Freiermuth, Connor Heyward, or Zach Gentry in on the action, there should be opportunities to take shots and advantage of any miscues in the flat, on a crossing route, and between the numbers. All three tight ends have shown good rapport with Pickett, making them intriguing to keep an eye on in this game.
The veteran receiver/returner has had some bumps and bruises along the way this season as he’s fought for a spot on the game-day roster. A hamstring injury kept him unavailable in Week 7 but he’s expected to be ready for Sunday.
“I come in and work hard every day regardless of what they’ve got going on, who is in front of me. I just put in the work and wait for my opportunity. When it came, I showed you guys what I can do.” – Steven Sims to the media
Sims has had some fantastic moments on special teams that could give Pittsburgh a boost, especially on returns that set the offense up with good field position.
The Steelers’ defensive secondary has seen its share of changing personnel due to injury this season. It has created interesting complications in how Pittsburgh has been able to defend opponents, sideline to sideline and over the top. Getting Witherspoon, and potentially Damontae Kazee (activated from IR per Jim Wexell), back healthy is a step in the right direction.
The Steelers know they’ll have to be exotic in their schemes against Jalen Hurts who’s mobile and efficient in the RPO, but has also been getting the ball out of his hands on passing downs around 2.8 seconds. In six games, opponents have only been able to sack Hurts 15 times this season.
Having more options available and at his disposal, personnel wise, Teryl Austin can utilize packages that apply pressure from different angles while being less wary of his secondary getting blasted deep.
Witherspoon’s success on the outside could free-up Cameron Sutton, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Terrell Edmunds to play in unconventional spots in special packages, including pressuring the quarterback.
In the last two games, Hurts has seen opposing defenses blitz around 49 percent of the time, and it has resulted in his depth to target average to drop in those situations to just under five yards.
“I think, with a mobile quarterback [like Hurts], you have to pick your spots… we try to pick and choose when the right times will be.” – Coach Teryl Austin on blitzing/pressuring
With his coaching staff on a bit of a hot seat in a year that was expected to experience growing pains without complete overhaul, Steelers Nation has their eyes – and will on Sunday – on how Tomlin manages the coaching staff and players in adjusting to what Philadelphia throws at Pittsburgh.
The Steelers faced a Miami offense just last week that runs an RPO-filled offense and made halftime adjustments that limited what the Dolphins were able to do points-wise in a close game.
The Eagles run a majority of their passes off of the RPO less than 20 yards down field. In fact, just over seven percent of Hurts’ passes have made the 20 yard distance.
“RPOs will slow down a pressure and that’s what they’re for… so, you change and figure out how the flow of the game is going.” – Teryl Austin
Coordination and communication will be the highest need this week between the Pittsburgh coaching staff and the players who will execute plays and adjustments. It will be a true test of whether coaching translates to how it translates on the field in all aspects of the game.
Tomlin emphasized this week that the team needs to fully take advantage of all opportunities they’re given. That message appeared to be received by players.
When asked about opportunities that got away last week, team captain Cameron Heyward said, “Catch the balls we’re supposed to catch. Get the sacks we’re supposed to get. When you do get the sack, strip the ball. Then the running backs, you have to lay the wood and punch the ball out… We have to make sure we take advantage of (all) opportunities.”