Believe it or not for an undefeated football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense isn’t as scary as some may think. In fact, it’s their defense that should get most of the credit for their 7-0 start to the 2020 season.
While they are not the dominant force they once were with Antonio Brown, prime Ben Roethlisberger, and Le’Veon Bell, they still have plenty of firepower on offense, and can score points when they aren’t being ultra-conservative, something they have a bad habit of doing so far in 2020.
Pittsburgh currently ranks 14th in the NFL in first-down run percentage, rank 10th in rushing EPA, and 10th in rush success rate with James Conner getting the bulk of the carries in the Steelers offense. Conner, entering his third year, has definitely seemed to have lost a step with his quickness and explosiveness, but can still be a quality starter thanks to the offensive play in front of him. What Conner lacks in the long-speed category, he makes up for with quality vision, the ability to avoid negative plays, and is still a quality receiver out of the backfield. Even with the Steelers running game losing a step from the prime Le’Veon Bell days, it’s still the biggest threat on that side of the ball for the Steelers, though these young, but talented receivers can hurt you as well.
Where Pittsburgh is able to find success with their running game and passing game is using pre-snap motion, motion at the snap, and multiple blocking schemes to create space for Conner in the running game, and easy completions for the Steelers passing game. As we’ve seen a lot in 2020, the Cowboys defense struggles with the eye-candy opposing offenses show at or prior to the snap. The Steelers are near the top of league in using motion pre-snap and at the snap, and that’s something they will look to exploit against an over-aggressive and undisciplined Cowboys defense.
Similar to Conner, when watching Ben Roethlisberger in 2020, you see a guy that is on the down-turn of his career. In 2020, Roethlisberger ranks 17th in CPOE+EPA composite, 10th in EPA per play, 26th in dropback success rate, and 21st in CPOE. The advanced metrics say Roethlisberger is a middle of the pack quarterback in 2020, and the tape would agree with them. The deep ball has been poor for Big Ben in 2020, and with plenty of speed and explosiveness on offense, that’s one area that Pittsburgh will want to improve in as the season progresses. While Roethlisberger isn’t the threat he once was, the talented group of receivers make him dangerous even as he gets older, and injuries limit his physical ability.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington aren’t talked about as forming one of the top units in the league, but they have the potential to be in that discussion over the next few years. One area they need to improve in is their consistency. When on, there’s no better group in the NFL with the ability to create big-plays after the catch due to the athleticism with Claypool and Johnson. Smith-Schuster has taken a bit of the backseat over the last few years, but is still a quality possession receiver with the ability to pickup yards when need be. Washington, the most underrated receiver in Pittsburgh is their vertical threat, with the ability to stretch the field and make one or two big plays a game for the Steelers offense.
While he’s still yet to live up to his hype, Eric Ebron is another weapon the Cowboys will have to worry about on Sunday. With Jaylon Smith struggling mightily in coverage, and Leighton Vander Esch not having much better success, the Steelers will look to get their athletic tight end and running backs lined up against the Cowboys linebackers as much as possible on Sunday. That’s a matchup they can, and will look to exploit as much as possible, especially on third downs against a Dallas defense allowing the most points in league so far in 2020.
If the Cowboys defense wants to have any success on Sunday, they will need their linebackers to play much better than they have through the first eight weeks. Jaylon Smith has been a bad player for sometime now, and this matchup is one he could see some massive struggles with if he continues to allow his eyes to deceive him. While Smith’s been a struggle, Vander Esch hasn’t been much better, and as similar issues where his eyes can get him into trouble pre-snap. With the Steelers solid offensive line, don’t expect the Cowboys defensive line to apply much pressure on Big Ben, except for DeMarcus Lawrence who is on a multi-week stretch of high-quality games.
This one may not be pretty, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Cowboys defense keeps the Steelers offense under 30 points, something they’ve rarely done in 2020.