The Washington Football Team will face its toughest challenge yet when it takes on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. (Check out a comprehensive preview of the game, HERE.) Here are three keys to the Week 13 matchup.
1. Pressure Ben Roethlisberger
Washington's pass rush has finally started to become the unit that many predicted would be one of the best in the NFL. Since the team's Week 7 win over the Dallas Cowboys, 55% of Washington's 36.0 sacks, which is tied for second in the league, have come in that span. Washington added four more sacks to its total by sweeping the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
Washington will need to maintain that progress if it hopes to extend its winning streak, but getting to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been a problem for defenses this year. If it somehow manages to get into the backfield -- Pittsburgh has allowed a league-low 10 sacks -- there's a strong possibility the ball will already be out of Roethlisberger's hands. According to Next Gen Stats, the 38-year-old quarterback throws the ball 2.28 seconds after the play begins, which is the fastest in the NFL.
"He brings that calmness, that experience, that accuracy, that talent," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Roethlisberger. "He's a really good football player. Obviously, add that to the defense they play and it's a pretty dangerous combination. [I have] a lot of respect for Ben. We've played against him over the years. I think he's a heck of a football player."
Luckily, Washington is well-equipped to be the team that can take down Roethlisberger. It is third in adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, and it is fourth in pass rush win rate, which is based on whether a pass-rusher is able to beat their blocker in 2.5 seconds or less. Roethlisberger's completion percentage also drops to 52.3% when he is pressured -- compared to 69.9% when he has a clean pocket -- so Del Rio could dial up some blitz packages to get him off his rhythm.
2. Get The Ball To Antonio Gibson And Terry McLaurin
Washington's offense has been on a roll for the past six games, as it has put up at least 325 yards in every game over that span. The success is largely due to the success of Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson, who have combined to account for 51% of Washington's offense since its Week 7 game against Dallas. Washington is also 3-0 when McLaurin and Gibson account for at least 55% of its total yardage.
McLaurin has been putting together a Pro Bowl season with 69 receptions for 963 yards and three touchdowns. That is a product of his work ethic, which offensive coordinator Scott Turner said is "tremendous," and even though Washington's passing yards have dipped in the past two weeks, McLaurin has still managed to produce with 176 yards. He has finished with at least 80 yards in each of the past five games.
"He takes everything one day at a time," Turner said. "He really trusts and believes in the process. He really believes in our coaches and what he's being told to do schematically and fundamental-wise. He just soaks it all up. When he makes a mistake, he doesn't make the same mistake twice. He focuses on the fundamentals. His skillset, he's obviously very strong and fast. He can separate. He's getting better."
Gibson is currently projected to finish his rookie season with 938 yards and 14 touchdowns, which would break the franchise's rookie scoring record set by Alfred Morris in 2012. Gibson, who primarily played receiver at Memphis, has shown tremendous progress as of late. Eight of his 11 touchdowns, which leads all rookies, and 62% of his 645 rushing yards have come in the last five games.
Quarterback Alex Smith has a limited amount of experience playing alongside Gibson, but he has still seen growth, particularly with Gibson's vision. Gibson was also announced as the NFL's Rookie of the Week for his 115-yard, three-touchdown game against the Cowboys.
"There were a lot of runs [against Dallas] that don't show up on a stat sheet, but I thought he did a great job of getting positive plays for us when really there wasn't a ton there," Smith said. "I think it's always been evident the big-play potential and ability he has. It's been really nice seeing him more and more comfortable. I think he has such a great knack of finding the end zone. I don't think that's a coincidence at all that he's having so much success in that area as well. I think with that, though, it's a lot of the little things that go into playing the position play in and play out."
Pittsburgh's defense is first against the pass and eighth against the run, but if Washington can lean on McLaurin and Gibson, it has a chance of pulling the upset.
3. Protect Alex Smith
Washington's pass rush has been dominant, but Pittsburgh has been the only team that is better when it comes to bringing down quarterbacks. The Steelers rank first with 41.0 sacks this season and have the NFL's second-highest adjusted sack rate of 9.2%. They also have a pass rush win rate of 57%, which is the highest in the league.
The pass rush is led by fourth-year veteran T.J. Watt, who is on pace to have a career year when it comes to recording sacks. He leads the league with 11.0 sacks and has as a pass rush win rate of 33%, which is the best among all edge defenders. Twelve of Pittsburg's players have recorded at least one sack this season.
Washington is tied for 29th with 35 sacks allowed, but the offensive line has shown improvement. It only allowed two against the Cincinnati Bengals and three against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Its performance against the Bengals earned a 77.2 pass blocking grade, according to Pro Football Focus, which is its third-highest of the season.
Washington will also be facing a limited pass rush Monday evening. Linebacker Bud Dupree, who is second on the team with 8.0 sacks, is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who has 7.0, is currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, although there is a chance he could be activated over the weekend.
Regardless of who is available for the Steelers, Washington will need to protect Smith in order for its offense to be productive.
"This is a tremendous challenge for us...at Pittsburgh," Turner said. "They're a very good team and we've got our work cut out for us.