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Redskin-Steelers pregame stretch

October 26, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Washington Redskins (3-4) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3)

Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX

Weather – or not?: Cloudy, showers, 46. With an unpredictable and large storm moving up the east coast, this could change three times before Sunday.

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Announcers: Sam Rosen and Brian Billick

Annoyance factor: The good news here is that Rosen, a competent, if not flashy, veteran announcer has apparently moved up in the FOX pecking order. The bad news is that he’s working for Billick, who has spun one good team into a career as a football “genius.” Ugh.

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Referee: Pete Morelli

Competence factor: Morelli is still persona non grata for many Steelers fans because of his insane overturn of a Troy Polamalu interception in a playoff game ALMOST SEVEN YEARS AGO, a game that the Steelers EVENTUALLY WON. It’s time to let it go, people (this means you, brother John).

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The line: Steelers -4.5

Smarts say: Something’s gotta give in this game as the Steelers are strong as a big home favorite (45-22 since 1992) while the Redskins are equally as money as a big road dog (35-16 during the same period). The over/under of 47 projects to something like 26-21 Steelers.

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Key matchup: Steelers defensive line vs. Redskins rushing offense/Alfred Morris

Because: Conventional wisdom says Pittsburgh’s defense must stop RGIII to win this game, but you know what we think of conventional wisdom. It says here this game will come to whether the staggering Steelers defensive line (see item below) can do its job in stifling Morris, the No. 2 rusher in the NFL. Everything else the Redskins do offensively is predicated on being able to run the ball and that makes this matchup critical. Remember, in a 3-4 the defensive linemen aren’t supposed to be making tackles, they’re supposed to be setting the edge, controlling the proper gaps and occupying blockers. Keep a close eye on #96, #98 and #99 early Sunday to see if they do a better job than they did against the Bengals.

Quick hits:

+ What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on with the Steelers defensive line? And by that, we mean why can’t Steve McLendon and Cam Heyward get on the field when the guys in front of them are playing so poorly? McLendon’s absence is especially puzzling. After playing well in a reserve role last year, he was the absolute hit of camp this summer in Casey Hampton’s stead, drew raves from the coaching staff and figured to take on a larger role with Hampton on the steep downside of his career. But McLendon has become all but invisible during the regular season, culminating in playing only ONE play against the Bengals while Hampton was pushed all over the field. Heyward has played a bit more, but not nearly as much as you might expect with Ziggy Hood having zero impact in games (his tipped passes Sunday were the first time this season he was even noticeable on the field) and with Brett Kiesel playing well below the level to which we’ve become accustomed. Occam’s Razor tells us the backups aren’t playing because they’re not better than the guys starting, and normally we’d defer to that, but it just doesn’t feel like the right answer in this season of strange decisions in Steelersland.

+ As we enter the “real” NFL season (November and December), we think it’s important to keep this in mind when assessing the Steelers chances: There’s a big difference this year between being a playoff contender and being a championship contender. It’s obviously a year where all the things the league has in place to create parity are working overtime and you’ve got a ton of mediocre teams, which means that just about everyone (except CAR and KC) fits the first category. The Steelers certainly are playoff contenders right now. However, there are only a handful of teams at present (SF, ATL, NYG, HOU, NE, CHI) who legitimately have a shot at winning the Super Bowl. What needs to happen for PIT to enter that category? A lot: Continued improvement on the offensive line, better fourth-quarter play from the quarterback, fewer dropped passes, vastly improved defensive line play, healthy linebackers, the return of a functional Troy Polamalu, fewer special teams penalties and better in-game decision-making from the head coach, to name a few.

+ Let’s not forget that the plethora of Pittsburgh penalties on special teams is a two-edged sword. Not only have they cost the team hundreds of yards in field position, but they’re often putting one of the team’s most valuable players (Antonio Brown) in harm’s way on the most violent plays in the sport for absolutely no reason.

+ Just a friendly reminder in case you’re new to this blog: Mike Wallace does one thing well and that thing is run fast in a straight line. That’s why he has more career receptions of 40+ yards than the rest of the Pittsburgh receiving corps combined and that’s why he’s valuable to the Steelers (and any other) offense. He stretches the field and allows other receivers with different skill sets more space to work underneath. Wallace’s skill does NOT make him $55 million valuable, though, and that’s why he’ll be leaving Pittsburgh in the near future to play for a team whose front office is dumber than the Steelers’ is. Until then, we get to enjoy the long bombs for scores and live with the drops, half-a**sed routes and general avoidance of physical contact.

The pick: Picking NFL games is so difficult because the talent levels of the teams are not that different and you’ve got four scenarios to consider (both teams play well, both play poorly, Team A plays well/Team B plays poorly and the reverse). Most picks are based on the first scenario (both teams playing well), which is the simplest. We feel like we’ve had a pretty good feel each week for how the Steelers will play (see below) but we’ve been way off in guessing what the opponent will do. That said, we expect the Steelers to play better this week. We think we saw some very encouraging things on the offensive line in Cincinnati and maybe a little bit of confidence building on defense. That said, if the ‘Skins play their best game, “better” for the Steelers won’t be good enough. So, with this pick we’re guessing Washington will struggle a bit in the likely miserable conditions at Heinz Field … Steelers 24-20.

Last week: We were on the mark about the Steelers playing poorly but off the mark in believing the Bengals could capitalize on it. Our misfire leaves us at 3-3 against the spread for the year.

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