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Four key matchups to watch against the Steelers

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NFL: SEP 08 Bengals at Seahawks Photo by Michael Workman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 1-0 Seattle Seahawks will travel to Pittsburgh to face the 0-1 Steelers in their home opener on Sunday. The Seahawks are fresh off a fascinating, and all-too-close victory over the Bengals. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, got shellacked by the defending champion Patriots on Sunday Night Football, and will now look to get back to the level expected of them entering 2019.

A pair of mirroring matchups will be crucial in this Week 2 matchup, beginning with the latest in a long line of great Steeler wide receivers:

Jamar Taylor vs JuJu Smith-Schuster

Welcome back to Seattle, Jamar Taylor, now please go cover one of the game’s best slot men. Taylor is back with the Seahawks after getting cut during the trimming from 90 to 53. His Week 1 absence, in part, led Seattle to rolling in their base defense a staggering amount: There were six teams to play three linebackers 90 percent of snaps or more in Week 1, and the Seahawks were the only 4-3 team of the bunch. However, Shaquill Griffin hinted on Thursday to expect more nickel, and rightfully so. Football, in 2019, is too spread to play in base so often—regardless of who makes up the trio of ‘backers. So Taylor likely draws back into the lineup over Ugo Amadi, who played sparingly in Week 1.

Smith-Schuster, in his first game as Pittsburgh’s de facto number one receiver (or second, if you count Week 17 last year when Antonio Brown went AWOL), remained primarily in the slot. In 2018, 111 of Smith-Schuster’s 170 targets came from the slot; they kept him where he’s best in Week 1, with 69 percent of the former Trojan’s snaps coming inside.

The Steelers’ new number one threat is equal parts explosive and efficient. Smith-Schuster scored touchdowns of 75 and 97 yards in 2018, had the fifth most yards after the catch, and turned a staggering 60 percent of his touches into first downs. Containing Smith-Schuster, both underneath and over the top, will be key to Seattle leaving Pittsburgh 2-0.

Seahawks’ defensive front vs Steelers’ offensive line

Sunday Night Football went about as poorly as it could have for Pittsburgh. However, despite their inability to create offense against the Patriots, the Steelers’ offensive line performed well, allowing just six pressures on 48 dropbacks. Now, the team that sits fifth in adjusted sack rate after one week will come up against a defense that brought pressure often in Week 1.

One of the ways Seattle was expected to mitigate their (at least perceived) lack of pass rush was to bring extra rushers. We saw it in the preseason, and it continued into the regular season: A year after blitzing the 21st most often in the league, at 20.3 percent, the Seahawks blitzed on 28.6 percent of Andy Dalton’s dropbacks. And it worked. Dalton was sacked five times, hurried six and forced into a bad throw on 9.8 percent of attempts.

Most encouragingly, it wasn’t just a single great performance. Jadeveon Clowney was outstanding, with the fifth highest pass rush win rate among EDGEs in Week 1, but so too was Quinton Jefferson, who had the 10th best pass rush win rate among defensive tackles. (Not to mention Al Woods, who had a tremendous game against the run.) Jefferson, and the rest of the line, benefited from Clowney’s presence, and that will only increase as Clowney’s workload rises.

Seattle will likely again lean on extra rushers, and extra Clowney, in order to pressure Ben Roethlisberger as they did with Dalton. They’ll just need to keep the volume allowed down, too.

Seahawks’ offensive line vs Steelers’ defensive front

In the same way Pittsburgh’s offensive line wasn’t representative of their dreadful offense in Week 1, their defensive front did not take the majority of the blame for the 33 points allowed. While Tom Brady diced up their secondary at will, the Steelers’ pass rush was working to make it difficult. Both T.J. Watt and Javon Hargrave were positives in an evening that lacked them, combining to pressure Brady on over 25 percent of his dropbacks (11 pressures total).

This is unwelcome for a Seahawks offensive line that was downright awful in Week 1. Playing without Mike Iupati (though his replacement, Ethan Pocic, was hardly the worst of the unit) and with a hobbled Justin Britt, Seattle allowed 10 pressures on just 24 dropbacks. Russell Wilson was hit five times (one sack, four hits) and hurried another five. As a result, they sit 31st in both Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency rankings, and Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, after Week 1.

In an incredibly difficult environment, against a relentless defensive front that has talent across the line, the Seahawks will find themselves in a quicksand game in a hurry, if they’re not able to protect Wilson better than they did a week ago.

Tyler Lockett vs. Vince Williams

Among the largest oddities in Pittsburgh in recent seasons has been their insistence to use linebacker Vince Williams in coverage against tight ends and slot receivers. Despite having Mike Hilton, a tough, sneaky underrated nickel at their disposal, Williams continues to be played in space. Hilton saw just under 57 percent of defensive snaps last year—over 10 percent less than Seattle’s nickel in 2018, Justin Coleman—in a season where the Steelers allowed the second most completions and fifth most yards to slot receivers. Too often, targets to slot receivers against Pittsburgh results in Williams flailing, and failing, in space. Or, alternatively, chasing, as he was here:

In Week 1, the Steelers allowed 15 receptions for 270 yards and three touchdowns to receivers out of the slot against the Patriots. This week, their continued struggles will be tested against Lockett and one of the league’s best connections. Fresh off a bizarre game which saw Lockett see just two targets, one of which resulted in a drop and the other a wide open 44-yard touchdown, the Seahawks and Wilson need to lean on Lockett to exploit Pittsburgh’s defensive blind spot. If they’re able to, they should be able to keep up with the Steelers, regardless of the matchups in the trenches.