Following a mini-bye, the Seahawks will return to action aiming to get back into the win column against the Steelers on Sunday Night Football at Heinz Field.
For the first time in nearly 4,000 days, Seattle will take the field without starting quarterback Russell Wilson, who landed on injured reserve on Friday one week after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured tendon in his right middle finger. With him sidelined, Geno Smith will make his first start since 2017 and will attempt to lead his team back to the .500 mark against a Pittsburgh squad coming off an impressive 27-19 victory over Denver in Week 5.
Minus Wilson and coming off a devastating loss to the Rams a week ago, what must Smith and the Seahawks accomplish to pick up a signature road victory in the Steel City? Here are five keys to a Week 6 victory:
1. An inconsistent run game must be productive to take pressure off Geno Smith.
One of the reasons Seattle hired offensive coordinator Shane Waldron back in January was to help reinvigorate a rushing attack that finished 12th in the NFL in yards in 2020. But despite his arrival and the return of Chris Carson, much like the rest of the offense thus far, the run game has been wildly erratic. The team ranks 19th in the league in rushing yards currently, has failed to hit 100 rushing yards in two of their five games, and now will be without Carson for at least three more games due to a neck injury.
Playing in a hostile environment on the road in prime time, the Seahawks can't expect to win by chucking the ball around the yard with Smith replacing Wilson against a talented Steelers pass rush. They will need to engineer a quality rushing attack to complement him and keep the defense honest, which starts with the play by the offensive line in the trenches. The buffet bashers have been hot and cold opening up run lanes, particularly at the guard and center positions, and the trio of Gabe Jackson, Damien Lewis, and Kyle Fuller will have to be on top of their game facing All-Pro defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and a stout front line to create room for Alex Collins to operate.
2. Even minus Wilson, don't reinvent the wheel offensively with Smith under center.
Establishing a semblance of a running game will be critical for Seattle's offense, but Waldron can't fall into the hole many coordinators do when tasked with calling plays for a backup quarterback. Though he's not Wilson, Smith was a second-round pick back in 2013 for a reason. He has the arm talent to make all of the throws, offers above-average mobility at the quarterback position, and knows the scheme inside and out, so he should be able to run the entirety of the playbook without a hitch.
One way Waldron can get the most out of Smith's skill set is mixing in a heavy dose of play action early and often. Surprisingly, per Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks rank just 17th in the NFL in play action pass attempts, but Wilson has been incredibly efficient with those plays, posting a gaudy 14.1 yards per attempt through five games. Data suggests establishing the run isn't necessary to thrive with play passes and Waldron could take quite a bit off his quarterback's shoulders by scheming up a few easy completions off play action to get him comfortable. Against an aggressive Steelers secondary, a few shot plays could DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett could also come to fruition off of play action as the game progresses.
3. Seattle's embattled defense must find a way to create a few turnovers, preferably in plus territory.
Every coach in the NFL emphasizes winning the turnover battle, but Pete Carroll can't be pleased with the lack of turnovers created by the Seahawks defense to this point. Among a bevy of issues plaguing the unit, they only have intercepted two passes - both by safety Quandre Diggs - and generated five total turnovers, which is tied for 18th in the league. Their cornerbacks have combined for three pass breakups and no interceptions. For some perspective, the team forced 22 turnovers in 2020 and finished third in the league with 32 turnovers generated in 2019.
If there's a right time for Seattle's defense to steal a few possessions, it would be with Wilson on the sideline, and Pittsburgh has been charitable with the football at times this year. Veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been turnover prone, already fumbling four times and throwing four interceptions. Adding to that total on Sunday night, preferably in opposing territory, would give Smith and the offense better starting field position to work with, which could make all the difference between suffering a second straight loss and pulling off the road upset.
4. Carlos Dunlap and the Seahawks' edge rush needs to come to life against a suspect pair of Steelers tackles.
While Seattle has struggled to get stops all year long defensively, Pittsburgh hasn't exactly been an offensive juggernaut either. The biggest issue for coordinator Matt Canada's unit has been a revamped offensive line featuring five new starters and two rookies, including center Kendrick Green. The group showed signs of progress last week opening up creases for rookie running back Najee Harris to rush for 125 yards in a win over Denver, but pass protection remains an area of significant concern, as the team ranks 28th (51 percent) in ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate metric.
Interior pressure by Poona Ford and Al Woods would be welcomed as well, but for the Seahawks to truly take advantage of a struggling Steelers line, the edge rushers have to make an impact from the outset against tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore. In particular, after a sluggish start, the team needs a breakout performance from Dunlap, who has yet to register a sack and has only two quarterback hits in five games. Darrell Taylor will also aim to stay hot after amassing four sacks in the past five games, while Benson Mayowa should see significant snaps rotating in at the LEO defensive spot as well. All three players need to ratchet up the pressure on Roethlisberger early and keep the heat on him all night long with hopes of racking up multiple sacks and possibly coaxing a turnover or two.
5. Force "Big Ben" to beat you and don't let Harris steamroll through the defense.
As important as pressuring Roethlisberger will be on Sunday night, it won't matter if the Seahawks aren't able to keep Harris in check out of the backfield. After finishing in the top five in the NFL in rushing defense a year ago, Carroll's squad has been stunningly poor in that department this year, allowing opponents to rack up 145 yards per game and a healthy 4.5 yards per carry average on the ground. In three instances, they have allowed at least 140 rushing yards, including 212 to Derrick Henry and the Titans in a Week 2 overtime defeat.
A 232-pound workhorse back, Harris ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash in the pre-draft process and exhibits a rare combination of speed, power, and elusiveness. He can run through defenders and also has a knack for making tacklers miss in space. In addition, he leads the Steelers with 28 receptions out of the backfield and has been a significant contributor in the team's passing game. The Seahawks front seven will have to be sound with their run fits and make sure to wrap up, as arm tackles won't get the job done against the talented former Alabama star. Linebackers Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks as well as safety Jamal Adams will be tested in coverage by his versatile skill set as well. Corralling Harris and forcing Pittsburgh to win the game through the air should be priority No. 1 and No. 2 on Sunday night.