Before the Las Vegas Raiders take on the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday, I had a chance to chat with Jeff Hartman, who covers the Steelers for Behind the Steel Curtain. Hartman feels the Raiders are a formidable opponent and offered some great insight into the game.
Here we go:
1. Now that we’ve had a full offseason, the preseason and a regular-season game, how are you feeling about the Steelers this year? Are you still expecting them to win the AFC North and be a Super Bowl Contender? Are you worried about the Browns at all? The Ravens?
The AFC North is going to be an extremely difficult division — again! — in 2021. I am not sure the Steelers will win the division for a second straight year, but they will be competitive. I have always predicted the Steelers to be a double-digit win team, and I stand by that prediction. As for the rest of the division, the Browns are the team that scares me the most. They are finally doing it the right way, it only took them decades to figure it out. However, while the Browns might be the up-and-coming team in the AFC North, the Ravens are still dangerous despite their injuries. Throw in a vastly improved Bengals team and the division is one of the best from top to bottom.
2. I want to talk about Ben Roethlisberger for a minute. There’s no doubt he wasn’t the same player last year, especially down the stretch of the season. Do you think his age and injuries are starting to catch up to him, or are you confident that he’ll be able to bounce back this season?
I think in 2020, he was banged up, but I don’t think it was his elbow. Sure, his surgically repaired elbow likely fatigued down the stretch, but I think his knees were the bigger concern last season. The way the year ended was a mess, and Roethlisberger already looks like a different player compared to where he was at this time last season. Roethlisberger learning a new offensive system throws a wrinkle into things, but I would expect Roethlisberger to still be able to win the Steelers football games this season.
3. Moving on to Big Ben’s weapons, Pittsburgh has a pretty strong WR core top to bottom with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and even James Washington is a pretty good fourth receiver. To give Raider fans a little glimpse of what to expect, can you give a brief description of what each of those guys brings to the table?
The deepest position group on the Steelers’ roster is at wide receiver. Chase Claypool is a matchup nightmare with his size, speed and strength. JuJu Smith-Schuster can play any position as a receiver and dominates mismatches in the slot, and Diontae Johnson is the smaller and shifty receiver who can slip past you in the blink of an eye. Slowing down all these options doesn’t happen. What happens is the defensive line has to get to Roethlisberger before he can find the open receiver. You saw this repeatedly against the Bills. If the Raiders want to slow down the receivers, you have to get to Roethlisberger early and often.
4. Now that we’ve covered the skill guys, let’s talk about the trenches. I feel like the Raiders’ and Steelers’ offensive lines are in pretty similar situations, in that both teams are replacing a few big names upfront so people are doubting them. However, I feel like the Raiders situation is a little overblown so I’m curious if you feel the same way about the Steelers’?
The Steelers offensive line is a work in progress. There have been stretches of solid play, and others where players look more like turnstiles than offensive linemen. The unit had a tough task in Week 1 going to Buffalo against a very good Bills’ defensive front, and they made adjustments and were able to improve in the second half. If this group can continue to improve on this trajectory, I like where they are headed. However, that is a gigantic “IF” and the line will continue to be the ultimate question mark surrounding the Steelers this season.
5. Alright, let’s flip sides of the ball. The Steelers’ defense top to bottom is a juggernaut. How do you attack them? Where have teams had success against them? This might be a tough question, but where do you think the weak spot is for them?
The Steelers’ defense is elite, there is no way around that, but teams have schemed ways to keep them on the field. The best way, in my opinion, is to get the Steelers in their “light” sub-packages and run the football. To do this, you have to have an extremely good offensive line, without extra linemen or tight ends, and attack the Steelers in the middle of the defense. Where the linebacker was, who came off the field in sub packages, is where you attack. If there was one blemish on the Steelers’ defense last season, it was versus the run. That is an offense’s best bet to slow down the extremely talented Steelers' defense.
6. I feel like the biggest loss for Pittsburgh’s D, and maybe even the team as a whole has to be Bud Dupree. Can you talk about what they’re missing without Dupree? What are your thoughts on Melvin Ingram and/or Alex Highsmith as a replacement?
After Week 1, Steelers fans are saying, “Bud who?” Dupree was great, but having three pass rushers in Watt, Ingram and Highsmith is something the Steelers have never had under Keith Butler. They were able to spell the other without any drop-off in production. Each player can play all over the defense and is a threat to get after the quarterback. Beware of this pass-rushing trio.
7. Who do you think the Steelers’ answer for Darren Waller will be? Is that going to be Minkah Fitzpatrick’s job?
It will have to be a multi-player job. I would expect the Steelers to use an ‘over-under’ type approach where they have a linebacker or safety jab Waller at the line, with a defensive back or safety playing over the top of him. That’s a lot of attention for a tight end, but he is that good. Not to mention Derek Carr targeted him 19 times last week. I’d pick Devin Bush or Joe Schobert to jam Waller off the line, with Minkah Fitzpatrick shadowing Waller’s side of the field all game. If they want to target him 19 times, Minkah will get Carr eventually.
8. Can you give me an under-the-radar player on the Steelers’ defense that Raiders fans should know about?
An under-the-radar player on defense would be Cam Sutton. The fifth year cornerback is a versatile player who can line up all over the defense. He did a tremendous job on Stefon Diggs last Sunday and will have to keep the Raiders’ wide receivers in check this Sunday at Heinz Field.