The Pittsburgh Steelers head back home to take on the New York Jets looking to get back to .500. A win comes down to a few key factors.
Return of The Zach
The number two overall selection in last year's NFL Draft has had an interesting last couple of months to say the least. After suffering a knee injury in the preseason, he’s been cleared to return to the field and will make his first start of the season against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Zach Wilson, like the rest of the 2021 QB class, had a tough time adjusting to the level of competition last year, averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt while throwing a couple more interceptions than touchdowns. There were several highlight-worthy plays throughout his rookie year but the lack of consistency in both his play and the supporting cast around him was apparent.
Wilson possesses a live arm, capable of throwing from different angles while making pinpoint throws in between defenders. He’s mobile enough to extend plays out the pocket and more dangerous when the play breaks down. There are weaknesses for the Steelers' defense to exploit, however.
As a rookie, Wilson made a bad habit of either dropping his eyes or running himself into pressure while struggling to play consistently within the structure of the offense. Perhaps more than anything else, Wilson particularly struggled against the blitz last season. When defenses brought five or more pass rushers, Wilson recorded a 54.9 passer rating while averaging 4.6 yards per attempt according to Sports Info Solutions.
Expect Mike Tomlin to turn up the heat early and often.
Alex Highsmith’s Hot Streak Should Continue
Talk about a third-year leap, Highsmith’s leading the entire league in sacks with 4.5 while also posting a career-best 13.8% pressure rate.
With a plethora of moves at his disposal such as an effective cross-chop, nifty ghost move and his patented inside swim move, Highsmith looks like he's on the verge of a breakout in year three.
Without his running mate T.J. Watt, he’s done his share to pick up the slack for a defense that’s otherwise lacking in the pass-rushing department. You’ve seen how productive he’s been against the likes of Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills but his streak might have just begun.
The New York Jets have been snake bitten by the injury bug, leaving their tackle depth exposed due to a string of bad luck. They’ve already lost Mekhi Becton for the season, Duane Brown was signed as his replacement before also ending up on Injured Reserve. George Fant was also placed on injured reserve due to a nagging left knee issue leaving starting duties to Conor McDermott, a career backup with just six starts across six seasons. Jets offensive coordinator Mike Lafleur has his work cut out for him as this is a matchup that looks like it could get ugly rather quickly if they leave McDermott on an island too often.
With another strong performance this Sunday, it might be time to start pondering the possibility that the Steelers could realistically employ the sacks leader in back-to-back seasons.
Sauce Gardner vs. Diontae Johnson Looks Like a Heavyweight Fight
If you've followed the NFL for a considerable amount of time, you know that it typically takes a little while for even the premier cornerback prospects to reach their potential (think Detroit's Jeff Okudah). In the case of the Jets, they might not have to be as patient, as Sauce Gardner looks pretty comfortable already out on the boundary.
The fourth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft went toe to toe with both Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase last week, breaking up multiple passes in his direction. Gardner features a freakish build with incredible size and length to go along with quality deep speed to keep up with even the fastest receivers. With four pass breakups already, Gardner almost seems to be enjoying the challenge of actually being targeted after college quarterbacks essentially avoided him like the plague for the past couple of seasons.
Corners such as Gardner don't grow on trees but the Steelers won't completely avoid him either. Gardner isn't likely to shadow Johnson with the Jets being primarily a zone coverage team, there will be plenty of reps where the two will be matched up across from one another.
Johnson's one of the game's absolute best separators, capable of breaking off pretty much anyone in single coverage. The Steelers rewarded the former Toledo Rocket with a new contract during training camp, and Johnson has repaid them for their investment, leading Pittsburgh in catches and receiving yards.
Anytime you get a matchup with two incredibly unique talents that are wildly different stylistically, it leads to must-see TV.
Defensive Back Distribution of Labor
Pittsburgh ruled out starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon as he's recovering from a hamstring injury. While Witherspoon had a bit of a rough go over the past two weeks, he's still their most talented all-around cover man which means the Steelers need to have a proficient plan in place to compensate for his absence.
The Jets are a heavy 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) offense, having lined up in this formation 76% of the time on the season, meaning the Steelers will likely match that by utilizing their nickel package. Cam Sutton's inside/outside versatility is an asset in times like this and Levi Wallace will hold the other boundary corner spot down but the Steelers have decisions to make in sub-packages.
They could decide to play Arthur Maulet a bit more, especially on early downs while rotating in swiss-army knife Tre Norwood into the fold during obvious passing situations.
Maulet's best asset is his run defense, and can be used as a blitzer on creepers off the edge. Norwood is athletically limited but a smart player who gained a ton of valuable experience last season.
It will be a key matchup to watch because Garrett Wilson rotates into the slot quite often and most of his production has come when lining up inside, posting 13 catches for 171 yards with eight of those registering a first down.
With Wilson, Elijah Moore and Corey Davis, the Jets have a quality trio that can't be taken lightly and the secondary will need a sound performance to combat those weapons.
Run, Najee, Run
Steelers running back Najee Harris attempted to shoulder some of the blame this week, telling the media that the offensive line has been playing well and that most of the blame should fall on him. It's true that the Steelers offensive line has been playing above expectations, Pittsburgh's running attack has left more to be desired with most of their splash plays coming via wide receiver carries on jet motions.
Harris' numbers are down across the board, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry through the first three weeks of the season but he clearly believes that the offense is on the cusp of a breakout.
The question then pivots to how much longer will they have to wait to reap the rewards of their patience?
This week is a no pushover. Quinnen Williams is one of the best interior run defenders in all of football and rookie Jermaine Johnson had a remarkably impressive showing against the Cincinnati Bengals, accounting for three run stops in limited action.
The Jets will be missing starting linebacker Quincy Williams who will be sidelined with an ankle injury which could test their depth at the position. Pittsburgh's continued improvement up front is a sight for sore eyes but it would be even more exciting to see them effectively control the game with their ground attack this week.
Keeping the clock moving and their defense on the sidelines, could do wonders in terms of bringing this team back to .500 in the win-loss column.
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