The Pittsburgh Steelers have a test on their hands when they host the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Don't let Washington's 2-3 record or their rookie quarterback fool you—this is a dangerous team and the Steelers will have to focus their efforts on both offense and defense to defeat them.
The Steelers have the benefit of home-field advantage as well as the upper hand when it comes to experience, but beyond that, they'll ultimately need to outplay the Redskins on Sunday if they want to win.
Here's a two-step game plan that can help their efforts this Sunday.
Contain the Run Game
Dangerously mobile rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has something to do with this—he's run the ball 64 times this year, for an impressive 468 yards and six touchdowns—as does the team's top running back, Alfred Morris, who has 658 yards and five scores on 138 carries.
The Redskins have a total of 64 rushing first downs, compared to just 34 for their opponents and are averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Though the Steelers defense ranks ninth when it comes to rushing yards per game allowed, at 92.5, and they're currently giving up .7 rushing touchdowns per game, past performance simply cannot serve as a predictor for how they'll fare against the one-two punch of Griffin and Morris this Sunday.
This isn't your typical NFL run game, for one. Griffin is a running threat, to be sure, but he's more than just a running quarterback. At any point, he can look ready to pass and then take off, or look ready to run and then throw a deep strike. This unpredictability makes it that much harder for the Steelers to prepare for Griffin. And just when they may think they have him figured out, Morris takes off with the ball, and the defense must again adjust.
So how to prepare for such an attack? They cannot play everyone close, or they'll get burned by the pass, and they cannot assume pass play after pass play, or that leaves them vulnerable to the run.
The best way to approach Griffin and the Redskins' run game is to cut it off entirely. They cannot squeeze Griffin out of the pocket or he'll run—unless there's someone there to stop him. Griffin will require a "spy" on him during most plays, and while that draws one Steelers defender away from the play, it will hopefully serve to keep Griffin contained, or be able to read whether he's planning to ultimately run or pass.
If the Steelers can predict when Griffin may run or when he will hand it off to Morris, they'll have a better chance of keeping the run game under control. Though Griffin is completing a league-best 70.4 percent of his passes, the Redskins rank 28th in passing touchdowns per game, at 1.1. And for all of his elusiveness, he's still been sacked 15 times already; if the Steelers disallow him running room when he's under pressure, they should be able to take him down.
Griffin has been throwing well—especially for a rookie—but the passing offense is presently the icing on the Redskins' run-game cake. The Steelers must force the Redskins' offense into being one-dimensional—or at least do their best to shut off their run game as much as possible.
Clearly, Morris will get his carries and Griffin will try to take off, but if the Steelers can keep them from making anything of it, Washington stands far less of a chance of winning.
Pass the Ball
If there's a week in which the Steelers should get back to the big-play passing offense we became accustomed to during the Bruce Arians era, it's this one.
Todd Haley's conservative, high-percentage passing offense has worked well—to the point that the Steelers have the second-best average time of possession, are converting an astounding 53.76 percent of their third downs and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has the eighth-best completion percentage in the league—but in this game, taking more risks could pay huge dividends.
That's not to say that Haley and Pittsburgh's offense needs to abandon their ball-control style of offense entirely. The longer their offense is on the field, the less time Griffin and company get to move the ball themselves, after all.
However, the Redskins defense ranks dead last in average passing yards per game allowed, at 328.4, and are giving up 12.2 yards per completion and 2.3 passing touchdowns per game. Add it all up and it seems like a great opportunity for Ben Roethlisberger to air it out to his group of reliable and fast receivers, especially considering the inconsistencies in the Steelers' run game (it's hard to assume that Jonathan Dwyer will put up over 100 yards for a second consecutive week) and the fact Washington's defense ranks seventh against the run.
Before Roethlisberger's 82-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace against the Tennessee Titans, his longest completion went for 37 yards; by this point last season, Roethlisberger had surpassed the 37-yard mark six times. However, with the Redskins and their defense coming to town—one that has given up 16 passing touchdowns so far this year—expect to see Roethlisberger going deep more often than in previous weeks.
The Redskins know how to score points—they've had just one game with less than 17 points so far this season—and if the Steelers don't effectively control Washington's run game or fall prey to Griffin's prodigious passing, they'll need to keep pace on the scoreboard.
Roethlisberger has never thrown a touchdown pass against the Redskins in his career—they've played twice during his tenure as starter—but considering the weapons he has at his disposal and the way Washington has been failing to defend the pass, he should have more than one on Sunday as long as the Steelers take a few risks with the deep ball.