Is this the week Pittsburgh allows a 100-yard rusher?
Gary Horton knows what to pay attention to in the Steelers-Redskins MNF game.
This week's "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) features the Steelers on the road versus the Redskins. Scouts Inc. has all the story lines to watch in this showdown.
Streak on the line
The Steelers' defense prides itself on the ability to shut down the best backs in the game and it hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 15 last season. Meanwhile, RB Clinton Portis is the NFL's leading rusher and has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his past five games. This game pits strength versus strength, so the Steelers' front seven will have to have excellent gap discipline, while the backend will have to step up, fill and stop Portis before he gets to the second level.
The Steelers have shown some improvement with their blitz pickup, which was a problem earlier in the season. But the offensive line's communication is still a work in progress because it continues to have trouble identifying defensive alignments and blitzes in presnap reads. As a result, the Steelers will keep RB Mewelde Moore and backup TE Sean McHugh in to help block, but that hinders the passing game and doesn't allow them to use a spread offense. QB Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers are also often not on the same page with their hot reads. This forces Roethlisberger to hold on to the ball and allows the defenders to tee off on him.
With RB Willie Parker back this week, Moore will likely play the role of third-down back. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, effective as a red-zone target and he is a tough matchup for Washington MLB London Fletcher. However, if the Steelers' pass protection problems continue -- Moore will be used even more in blitz pickup and that would hinder his effectiveness in the passing game.
Everybody knows how effective the Steelers' pass rush is, especially on the edges with OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, but their inside linebackers and down linemen are underrated. ILBs Larry Foote, James Farrior and backup Lawrence Timmons do a nice job on X-stunts, which is when two of the three hit the opposite A-gaps at the same time and confuse the offensive line. Meanwhile, their defensive linemen -- DE Aaron Smith, NT Casey Hampton and DE Brett Keisel -- are slanting more than we have seen in the past, rather than simply reading and reacting with two-gap techniques. This frees up the linebackers to attack from the outside because the offensive tackles have to slide down inside to neutralize the slants.
Bring the blitz
The Redskins should come with a more aggressive blitz package than they usually do because the Redskins' corners should be able to cover the Steelers' receivers in man coverage. It is clear that the Steelers struggle in pass protection, especially when defenses put a lot of defenders in the box. As a result, we may see some inside blitzes from the linebackers and safeties to attack the interior of the Steelers' offensive line. Plus, Washington is capable of surprising Pittsburgh with some corner-fire blitzes off the edge.
When you break down the film it is easy to see why the Redskins' offense is playing almost error-free football. It all starts with QB Jason Campbell, who is showing excellent composure, tremendous ballhandling and very good mechanics. He has underrated pocket movement and he can buy an extra second with his feet. His coaches have put together a quarterback-friendly package for him with safe, high-percentage passes and he really hits his receivers in stride. Campbell throws an excellent and safe bubble screen to WR Santana Moss, who catches a quick pass on the outside, cuts inside behind his blocks and picks up good yardage after the catch. Campbell also is effective on bootleg passes, in which he uses a good play fake to Portis before he rolls out and hits TE Chris Cooley on an outlet route. Both of these plays are easy throws that can move the chains.
Moss taking over
The Redskins were expected to be solid on special teams heading into the season, but have struggled thus far. They have been especially bad on punt returns and kickoff returns, and now Moss -- an explosive returner -- has surprisingly replaced WR Antwaan Randle El to try to give them a spark. However, the Steelers do a nice job on cover teams so this will be an interesting battle in the kicking game.
Multiple red zone formations
The red zone battle when the Redskins' offense is on the field will be interesting and they have two formations they like to use. The Redskins utilize a power formation that looks like a run because they put three tight ends on the line and a blocker in front of Portis. But Campbell is also effective on play-action and bootlegs out of this formation, especially to Cooley. The 'Skins also like to use a spread formation and, although they don't have any big receivers to run the fade, the Redskins' receivers have the edge over the Steelers' corners because Moss and Randle El are so quick that they can run slants and quick screens with great effectiveness. Portis could also be productive on a draw out of this formation.
However, Pittsburgh has an excellent red zone defense, especially versus the run, and the Steelers have only given up seven touchdowns in 20 tries.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm, The War Room.
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