The Redskins on Sunday take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field while hoping to improve to 4-4 on the season.
The Steelers, favored by five, enter this game with a 3-3 record (2-0 at home). They have won nine of their last 10 games at Heinz Field. The Redskins are 2-2 on the road this season, and 4-3 against the spread. The Steelers, meanwhile, are 2-4 against the spread.
Washington owns the better offense, averaging 28.7 points per game to Pittsburgh’s 23.3. But the Redskins’ defense has given up 28.6 points a game, and the Steelers give up an average of 22.0 points a game.
Here are five storylines for the Redskins’ Week 8 meeting with the Steelers.
1. Fletcher’s availability/replacement – The heart and soul of the Redskins defense has played a league-best 231 consecutive games, but that streak is in doubt because of a hamstring injury and balance issues that Fletcher disclosed to Mike Shanahan on Monday. After going through six hours of testing with a neurologist on Thursday, Fletcher gingerly went through Friday’s practice. His status officially is listed as “questionable.” Whether Fletcher plays or not, the Redskins face a tall task in limiting Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller, who is the team’s top red-zone threat. The Redskins have struggled to defend pass-catching tight ends all year long. Lorenzo Alexander would start if Fletcher can’t play, and will likely see time at that spot if Fletcher isn’t effective. But whoever draws the assignment, they have their work cut out for them as they try to limit the 6-foot-5, 256-pound Miller, who is averaging 9.4 yards per catch and has five touchdown catches this season.
2. Pass rushing efforts – The Redskins haven’t had much success in getting to quarterbacks, but they must find ways to harass Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers quarterback will aim to march his team downfield by spreading the ball around with quick hitters. Despite his size, Roethlisberger is slippery, and has the ability to shake off would-be tacklers and extend plays. Multiple defenders must get to the quarterback and try to take him out of his rhythm.
3. Secondary struggles – The shortcomings of Washington’s defensive backs continued once again last week. Consistency is a big problem. They will do well for portions of the game, but then give up one or two big plays a game – seven of 40 yards or more so far this season – that end up crippling their team’s efforts. The Steelers boast great speed at receiver with Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. It could be a long day for Washington’s defensive backs.
4. Fill-in playmakers – The Redskins already were trying to compensate without Pierre Garcon, and now they will be without Fred Davis as well. Logan Paulsen will start at tight end, and Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan will likely get the nod again at Receiver. So far, Hankerson has shown some flashes, but hasn’t played with consistency. Morgan hasn’t been much of a factor. He had his best play of the season – a 35-yard touchdown – nullified by a penalty. He must step up to help Robert Griffin III and the offense execute against a Steelers offense that ranks first in the league against the pass, limiting teams to just 6.1 yards per catch. Chris Cooley also will be back in the mix, but it remains to be seen how involved he will be after only going through three practices this week.
5. Griffin’s heroics – Each week, the rookie quarterback pulls off a seemingly impossible play, and each week he has put his team in position to win. The victories haven’t always come, but the Redskins have had their chances. On Sunday, he will face one of the stingiest defensive fronts he has faced all year. The Steelers rank sixth against the run, but the Redskins are likely to throw all kind of different looks at their opponents in an attempt to keep Pittsburgh’s defenders off balance. Can Griffin deliver a victory and get his team back to .500 as they reach the halfway point of the season?