Although it feels as though the 2021 season just started, and though there are certainly fans who fear it may already be over in the wake of the Russell Wilson injury, it is time for Week 6. For the Seattle Seahawks, that means a trip to the East Coast to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
To help Field Gulls readers get ready for the primetime matchup between a pair of teams that each enter the game having lost three of their last four, we reached out to Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain with five questions. Here are his answers.
1.) Seahawks fans have pretty solidly disliked Big Ben since he led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL, and his play on the field certainly appeared to be reaching the point where he was more of a liability than an asset for Pittsburgh. Then, of course, he came out and went 15-25 for 253 yards with a pair of touchdowns against Denver in Week 5. Was there something fundamental that changed, or did things finally just start to click under first year offensive coordinator Matt Canada?
To be honest, what changed was the offensive line. No, not personnel wise, but performance. The offense line has allowed free rushers at Roethlisberger early and often, and it has caused the quarterback to have serious issues manipulating the pocket and seeing the field. The line protected well, only allowing one sack and two quarterback hits, but more than that they opened up run lanes. At this stage in Roethlisberger’s career, the run game is his friend. If the Steelers can run the ball the way they did last Sunday, and not have to rely on Roethlisberger to go out and win them the game, they’ll be extremely competitive. However, we’ve seen the line have struggles, and reverting back to those ways doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. This team will go as the offensive line goes.
2.) A lot of emphasis was made during the offseason that the Steelers have success when they’re able to run the ball successfully, and then in the draft Pittsburgh added Najee Harris in the first round. Twice in the first five games of his career he’s gone over 100 yards from scrimmage, including his first 100 yard rushing game against Denver. Should Seattle fans expect a run-heavy offense? While the Seahawks have given up 4.5 yards per carry to opponents (24th in the NFL) their pass defense has been even worse.
I fully believe the Steelers’ goal on offense is to have a balanced attack every week. I don’t feel Matt Canada goes into a game suggesting the Steelers run the ball 35 times and pass it only 25, like in Week 5, but they want to keep the defense guessing. This past Sunday was the first game all season the Steelers were able to establish a running game and stick with it. I would expect the Steelers to run the ball early, and if they are having success they will continue to hammer the run until Seattle shows they can stop it. Denver was never able to stop Najee Harris, and his running was the difference in the game.
3.) The Seahawks gave Ahkello Witherspoon $4M fully guaranteed in free agency, and then by the time the preseason was winding down he was being used on the kickoff coverage team in the second half of preseason games against third and fourth stringers. Since being traded to the Steelers he’s played all of five snaps. Is he being given time to learn the system, or is he simply buried on the depth chart in Pittsburgh, just like it appears he was in Seattle?
To be honest, the Witherspoon trade seems like an absolute bust for the Steelers. Witherspoon, who was burned vs. the Las Vegas Raiders in a key moment of the Week 2 game, hasn’t been active since. I don’t care what the Steelers gave up for a player who isn’t even going to get a helmet on game days, it was too much. You can get a practice squad player to do that for much less. It has been disappointing, to say the least, and the hope is he will at least be able to provide quality depth, impossible to do when in street clothes on game day, in the near future.
4.) On each side of the football, who is a player that Seattle fans likely haven’t heard of, but who could be a difference maker in the game Sunday?
I’ve been saying this for weeks, and will continue to say it until it comes to fruition, watch out for rookie tight end Pat Friermuth (No. 88) out of Penn State. The kid has caught everything thrown his way, and it is only a matter of time till he is featured in a game. It will happen, but if it is Sunday night I’m not sure.
On defense, look for James Pierre (No. 42). The second year cornerback is raw and inexperienced, but has had a big role on the defense thus far. He has made big plays, like the game-clinching interception in Week 5, but also gotten beat on more than one occasion. He is someone to keep an eye on.
5.) After this matchup the Steelers have the bye and then a fairly tough remaining schedule including a pair of games against each of the Browns and the Ravens, as well as games against the Chargers, Titans and Chiefs. It’s hard to call a Week 6 game a must win game, but is this a really need to win game if the Steelers want to keep 2021 playoff aspirations alive?
If the Steelers can beat Seattle, they go into the bye week 3-3 on a two-game winning streak. Feeling good about themselves. However, if you reverse the outcome, 2-4 and going 1-3 at home in the first six games is awful. This is as big of a Week 6 game that I can think of, especially with the team still having 5 of 6 divisional games remaining on the schedule. Win Sunday night and keep divisional, and playoff, aspirations alive. Lose and it is an uphill battle, accompanied by needing help, for the rest of the regular season.
Big thanks to Jeff for answering my questions! You can read the answers to my questions over at BehindTheSteelCurtain.com and enjoy the game Sunday!