Rookie Alfred Morris could have a big day running against a bad Steelers rushing defense. Getty Images
This week 8 showdown at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh matches two teams with similar middle-of-the-road records, but different profiles. The data at Advanced NFL Stats says Washington has the league's #1 offense and the 25th ranked defense. The Steelers: 15th on offense and 17th on defense.
On offense, Washington is tied with the Giants for having the league's most efficient passing offenses (7.5 adjusted yards per passing attempt), and the Redskins ground game is formidable -- the Skins have the league's 3rd highest rushing success rate (a measure of how often a team increases its chances of earning a first down or a score).
On defense, the Redskins are decent against the run, but are undone by their inability to cover. According to Advanced NFL Stats, the Skins are the 6th worst passing defense, allowing 7.3 adjusted yards per passing attempt. In other words, opponents are having an easy time throwing against Washington. Which is not exactly news to Skins fans.
Like Washington, the Steelers, led by Ben Roethlisberger, have a strong passing game -- 9th best AYPA. Unlike the Redskins, the Steelers have been awful running the ball -- only New Orleans has a worse running success rate.
Defensively, the Steelers have been solid against the pass (9th best), and terrible against the run (3rd worst).
If you're wondering what to expect based on the season so far, here's my thinking:
A heavy dose of Alfred Morris running for the Skins
A heavy dose of Roethlisberger throwing for the Steelers
Lots of points
Lots of penalties (Steelers have the league's highest penalty rate; Washington is tied for second highest)
Here are some of the key factors I'll be watching for Sunday:
Can London Fletcher play? Fletcher has been dealing with a "grab" in his hamstring this week, as well as worrisome "balance issues" that have been bothering him for at least the past few weeks, but possibly since the preseason. If Fletcher can't play or isn't as good as usual, Washington will turn to Lorenzo Alexander -- who had been getting time on the outside with Brian Orakpo sidelined.
Can Washington figure out how to cover someone? The Redskins secondary has been bad, and they continue to be dinged. I don't envy Jim Haslett's job of attempting to design coverage schemes using guys who can't cover. Help is not on the way this season -- and probably not next season either given the $18 million cap penalty. If you're a fantasy player who needs a wide receiver -- it's a safe bet to play Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders.
Can Washington continue to be successful throwing the ball? Griffin is a terrific passer, but he'll now be without his #1 receiver (Pierre Garcon -- out with a painful foot injury) and his #1 tight end (Fred Davis -- out for the year with a torn Achilles). The front office brought back fan favorite Chris Cooley, but Cooley figures to be a third option behind Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen. Paul, of course, is a converted wide receiver who will get a chance at extended playing time. A depleted receiving corps will be a test for Griffin. My belief is that Griffin will be able to make some new stars with his quick release, arm strength and uncanny accuracy.
Can the Skins front seven pressure Roethlisberger? Big Ben has never been fast, but he's surprisingly elusive and a bear to drag to the ground. Roethlisberger is dealing with an array of physical problems, but he's still been productive this season. He's more stationary than he has been throughout his career. Washington could use pressure from its front seven -- preferably from four-man rushes -- to ease the pressure on its bad secondary. Unfortunately, the Skins pass rush has been less robust since Orakpo got hurt.
Will the real Ryan Kerrigan please show up? This one is an extension of #4. Pittsburgh will be playing Mike Adams at right tackle in place of the injured Marcus Gilbert. He's given up 3 sacks already in relief of Gilbert, which could mean good things for Kerrigan. However, Kerrigan has been much less effective rushing the passer since a strong start. In the first month, Kerrigan had 9 QB knockdowns; since then: just 6 QB hurries. Kerrigan was largely controlled by Sean Locklear, who was a turnstile for the Skins at right tackle last season.
Prediction I hope this is more head than gut, but I think Washington will find a way to win this game. I expect it to be high scoring and fun to watch, and I anticipate it coming down to some fourth quarter heroics from Griffin.
Washington Redskins -- 33
Pittsburgh Steelers -- 28