The Legion of Boom, huh?
No longer, it seems.
The Pittsburgh Steelers head into CenturyLink Field this Sunday and play the Seattle Seahawks, in front of a crowd that is noted for its ability to change the outcome of games and frustrate opposing offenses with its noise. The Steelers, a team that is rapidly approaching every game being a must-win with three teams nibbling at its heels for the final two playoff spots, need to turn this game into a shootout as quickly as they possibly can. The gameplan for the Steelers needs to be simple yet effective: put the game into the hands of Ben Roethlisberger and force quarterback Russell Wilson to outduel him.
Wilson is a very good quarterback. He brings an element to an offense that is incredibly difficult to defend. His ability to extend plays, keeping his eyes downfield and making big plays long after the play has “died” should be familiar to Steelers fans. Wilson, while not possessing the same stature and physical size of Roethlisberger, brings a very similar element to the field. While possessing much more speed and ability to generate big plays with his legs, when Wilson extends plays far beyond their expiration date may be when the Seahawks’ offense is most deadly.
Roethlisberger can relate.
The Steelers’ defense, while historically struggling against mobile quarterbacks, has done a very good job this season of forcing mobile passers in the pocket and forcing them to win with their arms as they did with quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Johnny Manziel. Both of whom possess the ability to create explosive plays with their legs. The speed of the defense has done an exceptional job, however, particularly against Kaepernick, of forcing them to create plays with their arms and beat a Steelers team with their passing attack.
The explosive-play ability of the Steelers’ offense is well documented. This is a team whose quarterback leads the NFL in throws 25+ yards down the field with 11, and has missed four games this season. The aerial assault the Steelers have been able to produce when Roethlisberger has been on the field is staggering, and most of this has come without Le’Veon Bell being on the field. Wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant have more than picked up the slack, the former of the two is firmly on 2000 yard watch despite missing his franchise quarterback for more than four-and-a-half games.
This is where the gameplan lies.
Wilson, for all of his attributes, is a quarterback that struggles to make the big play with his arm when necessary. The narrative of Wilson is that he does not possess an overly strong arm, and while there is some validity in this statement, it does not give an overly accurate representation of the story. Wilson does not have the strongest arm in the league, but the Seahawks offensive ideology lies in running the ball and controlling the clock efficiently. This is reminiscent of the Steelers offense of old, in which Roethlisberger would simply manage the game, limit his mistakes and let the running game dictate the pace of the game. Wilson’s offense is similar, but now he is down his number one weapon on the offense in running back Marshawn Lynch. I had never fully bought into the Lynch hype — I’ve always considered him a one-dimensional running back, albeit very effectively — but his numbers in this offense do not lie. The offensive threat of both Wilson and Lynch is a load for any defense to handle, but due to injury, the Steelers defense can rule out playing Lynch on Sunday. Taking his place is the undrafted rookie from Central Michigan Thomas Rawls, a more speedy but strong running back capable of churning out yardage between the tackles. The rookie has been impressive in his play thus far, notching over 250 yards from scrimmage against the lowly-San Fransisco 49ers.
This is why the Steelers are forced to make the Seahawks one-dimensional right from the very start.
The Steelers must attack the Legion of Boom throughout the game. Saying this two years ago would have been met with a hardy chuckle, but this is not the Seahawks defense of old. This secondary is prone to surrendering big plays, and against one of the most prolific passing attacks in the league, the Seahawks’ secondary is going to struggle.
Key Matchup to Watch for Offensively
Wide receiver Antonio Brown vs. cornerback Richard Sherman
There simply could not be another highlighted matchup here.
All-Pro vs. All-Pro. Elite vs. Elite. Best on best.
Call it what you’d like, but the match-up of Brown on Richard Sherman may be the best receiver-cornerback matchup of the season. The past few seasons, perhaps. Brown is at the top of his game and is the league’s best receiver. That statement was once debatable and I no longer believe it is. Sherman has historically struggled with receivers that possess similar skill sets to that of Brown, but has not yet played the All-Pro himself.
For all of the praise Brown gets for his elusiveness, play-making ability and quickness off of the line, the most underrated component of Brown’s game is his strength off of the line. Brown does not get jammed and this isn’t an accident. His ability to beat the jam off of the line of scrimmage, using his hands and fighting through press coverage and getting leverage on cornerbacks is remarkable to watch. The Seahawks’ secondary prides itself on being a physical unit that does not surrender explosive plays and makes offenses pay for trying to throw the ball against them.
It’s why I’m advocating the Steelers do exactly that.
The Steelers’ offense is built on the foundation of getting the quick strike passing game, but known for its deep ball passing attack. The Arizona Cardinals, a team noted for its secondary talent, could not stop the Steelers quick strike passing attack and ended up losing as a result. This was with quarterback Landry Jones under center.
Sherman may not shadow Brown for the entire game, but it would surprise me if Sherman did not see most of his coverage lined up opposite the All-Pro receiver. I’m not expecting Brown to shred the secondary the way he did against the Oakland Raiders, but I am expecting a big day from him. Expect between 7 – 9 catches and likely over 130 yards.
This is not a secondary that is going to stop Brown. Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor will do their best to limit the receiver, but will likely have limited success.
Key Matchup to Watch for Defensively
Linebackers Ryan Shazier*, Sean Spence and Lawrence Timmons vs. quarterback Russell Wilson
*Ryan Shazier has an asterisk as he is listed as questionable to play at the time of writing this.
The defensive gameplan is simple: limit the plays Wilson makes with his legs. Force Wilson to stay in the pocket, make throws with his arm and the Steelers will walk out of CenturyLink with a victory.
Now, this is easier said than done. Wilson’s ability to extend the play and make plays with his legs is well documented. Containing him inside the pocket is more than just the job of the linebackers. The defensive ends have to maintain gap integrity and not play behind Wilson; meaning they must keep Wilson in front of them. Over pursuing and loss of gap integrity is going to allow Wilson to churn out big plays against a Steelers defense that needs to put the Seahawks into third-and-long situations. The name of the game for the defense needs to be putting the Seahawks into third-and-passing downs, forcing Wilson to look for his receivers on the boundary.
The Seahawks lack any substantial talent at receiver. There are players that have speed and ability on the boundary, but no true number one receiver is on this team. Tight end Jimmy Graham was acquired in an off-season deal with the New Orleans Saints, but fans and media alike have questioned the Seahawks use of the star player. Limiting his role in the offense, particularly in goal-line and third-down situations is imperative for this defense.
Wilson is an incredible, albeit limited talent. He’s not a quarterback this is going force opposing secondaries to respect the passing game. In many ways, this plays directly into the hands of the Steelers’ defense. The secondary is the focal point for most opposing offenses to attack. With cornerbacks Antwon Blake and William Gay struggling this season, offenses have made no mistake in their aerial assault and simply taking what is being given to them – the short passing game.
This is where the front-seven comes into play.
The strength of the Steelers defense is in its play-makers on the defensive line and linebackers in the middle of the defense. Defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt should have a field day against a porous offensive line. The Seahawks have surrendered 35 sacks this season, averaging 3.5 sacks per game allowed. Wilson is expected to see similar pressure on Sunday as the underrated, but talented defensive line of the Steelers is poised to take full advantage.
This really does begin and end with the speed of the linebackers inside the middle of the defense.
If Shazier is not able to play, linebacker Sean Spence is expected to pick up the slack and provide the speed inside to eliminate Wilson as a running threat.
PREDICTION AND PARTING SHOTS
The Steelers’ aerial assault is simply too much for the Seahawks to handle. Brown and Bryant both have solid games, with running back DeAngelo Williams chipping in to keep the offense from being completely one-dimensional.
Steelers 27 – Seahawks 20
• Maurkice Pouncey’s injury is evidently classified. Outside of the locker room, it appears no one has any idea the extent of his injury.
• Tackle Mike Adams has likely played his last game as a member of the Steelers. His lingering back injury this season has forced him out of action and was not activated in time to play this season. His inconsistent and often poor play has made him expendable.
• Peyton Manning’s targeted return is week 15 @ Pittsburgh, which I thought was … interesting. There will be an article up closer to that date in which I talk about this very topic.