Entering foreign territory playing without star quarterback Russell Wilson for the first time in a decade, the Seahawks will hit the road seeking a bounce-back win with Geno Smith under center against the Steelers on Sunday Night Football.
Which matchups will have the greatest impact on which team prevails and returns to the .500 mark? As Seattle and Pittsburgh prepare to face off for the second time in three years, here are five matchups to watch closely at Heinz Field:
--Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith versus Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick: A do-it-all safety who lines up all over the place for the Steelers, including seeing action in the slot, Fitzpatrick can be a quarterback’s worst nightmare, especially for a backup like Smith who hasn’t started a game since 2017. The former Alabama star is a textbook ball hawk, as he picked off five passes after being acquired from Miami during the middle of the 2019 season and produced four interceptions a year ago as the steadying hand in Pittsburgh’s secondary. Surprisingly, while he leads the team with 38 combined tackles, he has yet to register a pick or pass breakup through five games and has struggled in coverage so far this year, allowing 15 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown per Pro Football Focus. Understanding the defender’s proclivity for making plays on the football, that may not be a good omen heading into this weekend and Smith will have to keep close tabs on where Fitzpatrick is each snap. If he has time to throw, the Seahawks may want to dial up a few double moves to try to expose his aggressive nature.
--Seahawks cornerbacks D.J. Reed, Sidney Jones, and Marquise Blair versus Steelers receivers Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be without his top security blanket in Juju Smith-Schuster, who underwent shoulder surgery and could miss the remainder of the season, but the veteran signal caller still has plenty of receiving talent at his disposal against a struggling Seattle secondary. Standing 6-foot-5 and boasting sub-4.40 speed, Claypool has emerged as the Steelers equivalent of DK Metcalf and can win as both a vertical threat and a YAC monster in the short to intermediate passing game. According to PFF, he currently ranks seventh in the league with 7.6 yards after the catch per reception. Johnson more closely resembles Tyler Lockett as a savvy, tactful route runner with excellent quickness and yards after the catch capabilities, while Washington has shown a penchant for the big play when he hasn’t been hampered by focus drops. Those three players will provide the latest difficult test for Reed, Jones, and Blair, who will all need to be on the top of their game to limit yardage after the reception and keep the receivers in front of them.
--Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks versus Steelers running back Najee Harris: This past offseason, the Steelers rebuilt their offensive line from scratch, losing perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and letting long-time starting tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard Matt Feiler walk in free agency. While this overhauled group struggled early in the season, they have shown tremendous growth over the past few weeks, particularly in the run blocking department creating room for Harris, who busted out with a career-high 125 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Broncos in Week 5. At 230 pounds, Harris possesses an impressive blend of speed, power, and elusiveness as a ball carrier and can be difficult to bring to the ground. He’s also a viable receiving threat, as he leads Pittsburgh in receiving yards and can cause problems for defenses on screens and in the quick passing game. After a rough outing against the Rams a week ago, the Seahawks will need Wagner and Brooks to be on top of their respective games to help slow down the rookie steamroller and defend him in coverage.
--Seahawks interior offensive line versus Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward and linebacker Devin Bush: Inconsistency has been a major issue for Seattle offensively all year and thanks partially to injuries to Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, the running game hasn’t been an exception with the team currently ranked 19th in the NFL in rushing yards. With Smith under center, the Seahawks have to find a way to engineer an effective run game to compliment him and help take some of the burden off his shoulders. But that will be easier said than done against a front seven led by the criminally underrated Heyward, who remains a force to deal with in the trenches both as a run defender and pass rusher, and a speedy tackling machine in Bush manning the middle. The onus will fall on guards Damien Lewis and Gabe Jackson as well as center Kyle Fuller to win using double teams against Heyward at the point of attack and get hands on Bush at the second level, which would allow Alex Collins and the rest of Seattle's stable of backs a chance to make something happen.
--Seahawks defensive ends Carlos Dunlap, Darrell Taylor, and Benson Mayowa versus Steelers tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore: Getting throws out of his hand in a league-best 2.34 seconds per drop back according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Roethlisberger’s quick release has taken some pressure off the Steelers revamped line. But in part due to Moore's rookie struggles with 15 pressures allowed, they still rank 28th in the NFL in ESPN’s pass block win rate (51 percent) and when opponents have been able to get to the aptly nicknamed "Big Ben," he has shown himself to be quite charitable turning the football over. Through five games, the veteran signal caller has thrown four interceptions and also fumbled the football four times. Never shying away from throwing into tight windows, quick pressure can force him into poor decisions with the football, as he ranks second on PFF for "takeaway worthy plays" behind only Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence. Though he’s still difficult to sack due to his sheer size, he also can be careless with the football in the pocket. If there’s a game where Dunlap, Taylor, and Mayowa can feast, this may be the one against two vulnerable tackles protecting a stationary quarterback who doesn’t offer much of a threat with his legs at this stage.