After an exciting road trip out west, the Packers come back home to take on the Steelers. Pittsburgh has had Green Bay’s number recently, winning the last 5 regular season matchups (although the Packers won the one playoff game between these two teams in that stretch). Most recently, the Steelers beat the Packers with a last second field goal in 2017 – a game Brett Hundley started. In 2013, the Steelers scored a late touchdown to win against a Packers squad led by Matt Flynn.
The last time Aaron Rodgers started against the Steelers was Super Bowl XLV – a game where Green Bay jumped out to a big lead early and never looked back.
This year’s matchup could have a similar feel, as the Packers appear to be heating up, while the Steelers, who started the year with a come from behind win over the Bills, have looked sluggish in back to back losses against the Raiders and Bengals.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh’s offense hasn’t passed for 300 yards or ran for 100 yards in a game yet this year and has only put up 43 points in 3 games.
Their run game has been pretty pathetic, with rookie Najee Harris averaging only 3.1 yards per carry. That has made them one-dimensional and allowed opposing defenses to focus on rushing Roethlisberger, who has not looked like Prime Big Ben this year. His arm strength seems to have dropped off since elbow surgery prematurely ended his 2019 season and the Steelers passing game has been built around shorter throws this year. This can give fast corners like Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes some opportunities to play close and jump some of those short routes.
In the past, Roethlisberger excelled at using his size to stay upright in the pocket and buy time for his receivers to get open downfield. Without his arm strength to complement his ability to avoid going down, the results for Pittsburgh’s offense have been a far cry from the Steelers most recent glory days.
Chase Claypool has established himself as the top target on the team, with JuJu Smith-Schuster struggling with injuries. Smith-Schuster appears to be getting over his rib injury, but Claypool seems to have sustained a hamstring injury during practice and is questionable for the game.
Smith-Schuster has an average build for a receiver at 6’1, but Claypool is built like a tight end at 6’4, 238. This makes him tough matchup for the Packers, who have a very fast secondary full of guys 4 inches shorter. Kevin King’s size makes him a decent matchup for receivers like this, but King was listed as doubtful on the team’s final injury report, so it seems likely Alexander or Stokes will draw the assignment, with the other taking Smith-Schuster.
Both Claypool and Schuster run the 40-yard dash in over 4.5 seconds, while Jaire and Stokes run 4.38 and 4.24, respectively. The Steelers receivers can be more physical, but the Packers have a huge speed advantage, which could really show up if Big Ben can’t get any zip on the ball.
Rookie running back Najee Harris is the second-leading receiver on the team after racking up 14 catches for 102 yards last week against the Bengals. The Packers have actually fared reasonably well in limiting receiving backs, starting week 1 when they held Alvin Kamara (one of the better receiving backs in the game) to 8 yards on 3 catches. De’Vondre Campbell will play a big part in limiting Harris out of the backfield.
Campbell might actually be one of the most important players on this defense. Pittsburgh’s offense, with the physical elements in their passing game also have a physical run game. Najee Harris came out of college as a 230 pound power back. He appears to have trimmed down a bit in the pros, but still runs hard. He’ll present a unique challenge for a Packers defense that has a “soft” label, but has been playing physical of late. Campbell seems to be leading the way in establishing a more physical tone on defense.
They will need that to shut down the Steelers.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
The Packers were a fine-tuned, evenly-balanced machine at San Francisco. They only struggled when they tried to force the ball downfield for no apparent reason on a couple drives. They had 4 yards per carry and almost 8 yards per pass attempt.
If they keep any semblance of balance this week, the offense should have very little problem moving the ball.
Pittsburgh has talent in the secondary with players like cornerback Joe Haden and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, but they’ve given up nearly 800 yards passing in three games this year.
Linebacker TJ Watt looks ready to return from injury and will surely give the defense a boost, bringing some extra energy to play in in Wisconsin again (did you know he played college football in Wisconsin?). He’ll be an interesting matchup for the Packers, who look likely to be with out Elgton Jenkins (and David Bakhtiari again). Yosh Nijman will probably start at left tackle, but JJ Watt got every one of his league-high 15 sacks last year lining up against right tackles.
This means that Billy Turner will probably get the bulk of the action with Watt, and it also means that Aaron Rodgers will get to see him instead of worry about him coming from his blind side. Rodgers’s quick processing and release should help neutralize Watt’s effectiveness.
Watt gets a lot of press as a dynamic play maker (and deservedly so), but his pass rushing partner Cameron Heyward is a stud in his own right. Heyward doesn’t get as much media attention, but he is a top-tier pass-rushing defensive lineman. The Packers’ very green interior line will need to be on their toes looks for stunts and twists in addition to just having their hands full with two very talented pass rushers.
The problem for the Steelers is that Aaron Rodgers doesn’t get flustered easily. He found his groove and is able to navigate pressure and pick apart defenses. The key for Green Bay is to not put it all on his shoulders. The run game has proven extremely effective in opening up the pass game for the Packers this year.
He’ll be without his best deep threat in MVS (who was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury), which will limit how the Packers call pass plays. They don’t have a true speed threat capable of pushing coverage high without him. If things get crowded in cramped space, it could push Rodgers to try to force the ball, which has ended with sub-optimal results in the recent past.
Instead of using a deep threat to open up the passing game, the Packers may need to run the ball to open up the passing game.
Green Bay’s run game has proven more than capable when called upon this year. At times, the Packers have seemed a little pass happy. As we get into October and the team finds a rhythm, we’ll get a better idea of where this offense is heading schematically.
In all the excitement of last week, let’s not forget that Corey Bojorquez has looked like a superstar at punter for the Packers this year – he’s been playing at a Pro Bowl level and is one of the best moves the front office has made from a value perspective. As compensation for Bojorquez, the Packers have to swap their 6th round pick with the Rams for their 7th round pick. That swap doesn’t even happen until the 2023 draft. Such a great value move.
Regardless of if Eric Stokes matches up against Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster, it will be his stiffest test as a pro and serve as an important measuring stick for his development.
Allen Lazard went to the coaching staff and asked to play special teams last week after the Packers gave up another big return. He immediately went into the game and helped the Packers pin the 49ers down on subsequent kickoffs. It will be interesting to see if he remains a fixture on that unit and if the Packers made any other adjustments to shore up their ailing kick coverage.
The Steeler have been floundering this year as their quarterback shows his age and some of their best player have dealt with injuries.
I expect the return of TJ Watt to give them a jolt and push them to one of their best performances of the year, but I don’t think it will be enough.
The Packers offense, when is stays balanced, is showing glimpses of being a top unit in the league. Heck, even when they aren’t balanced, they’ve had some success. Meanwhile, the defense has been establishing a more physical identity. Players on both sides of the ball are gaining confidence.
Simply put, the Packers look like a team on the rise, while the Steelers look like a team on the way down. I don’t think Pittsburgh’s desperation is any match for Green Bay’s confidence.
Packers 35, Steelers 23
Bruce Irons has played, coached, and studied football for decades. Best-selling author of books such as A Fan’s Guide To Understanding The NFL Draft, A Fan’s Guide To Understanding The NFL Salary Cap, and A Fan’s Guide To NFL Free Agency Hits And Misses, Bruce contributes to CheeseHeadTV and PackersForTheWin.com.
Follow Bruce Irons on Twitter at @BruceIronsNFL.