3TFO: Steelers @ Giants, Week 9
Normally, a meeting between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants would be dominated by stories of the 2004 NFL Draft, the Rooneys and the Maras, and two franchises that have won four of the past seven Super Bowls. However, given the events of the past few days, Sunday’s game will seem far from normal. Here’s hoping that these two teams can give the people of the Tri-State Area a reason to cheer at the end of a tough week.
New York has generated an absurd 16 takeaways in its four-game winning streak, en route to a +13 turnover margin that is tied for first in the NFL. However, it can’t count on the same success against the Steelers, whose six giveaways are tied for the lowest mark in the league. Pittsburgh is hoping to reverse its fortunes on the road, where it is 1-3 this season. Let’s take a look at three matchups that will unfold in front of an emotionally-charged MetLife Stadium crowd.
Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace vs. Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara
Last year, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown made a strong case to be called the best wide receiving tandem in the NFL. They excelled in both traditional stats (2,301 combined receiving yards) and our advanced PFF metrics (Brown’s 2.59 Yards Per Route Run was third-best in the league, while Wallace’s 2.15 also put him in the top 20). However, neither has played up to his high standard this season. Brown has reached the end zone only once, while Wallace has four drops in seven games after recording four total last season. Brown’s 1.85 YPRR and Wallace’s 1.75 are simply average. After combining for 19 receptions and 709 yards on deep balls last season, they have just five catches for 186 yards so far this year. Still, with Wallace’s speed and Brown’s shiftiness, the Giants can’t afford to take either of these wideouts lightly.
Brown and Wallace will be a revealing test for a New York cornerback group that may be undergoing a changing of the guard. Since their 2007 playoff run, Corey Webster has been the Giants’ franchise cornerback, following (and often neutralizing) the opposing team’s best wideout. But this season has been a different story. Only five cornerbacks have allowed more than Webster’s 486 yards in coverage. Last week, Webster inexplicably bit on Dez Bryant’s out-and-up with seconds left in the game. Only Bryant’s fingertips saved the Giants’ corner from absolute embarrassment. While Webster regresses, Prince Amukamara has rebounded from a shaky rookie season to play like one of the best cornerbacks in the league. His 16.1 Coverage Snaps per Reception is fifth-best among cornerbacks, and he’s surrendered just 164 yards and zero touchdowns. When these two line up against Wallace and Brown, it will be interesting to see whether Ben Roethlisberger attacks the sophomore standout or the aging veteran.
Giants Interior Offensive Line vs. Steelers Defensive Line
During last week’s Giants-Cowboys game, I heard Troy Aikman applaud the Giants’ offensive line for surrendering only six sacks this season. After we at PFF frequently documented the ineptitude of New York’s front line last season, should we now join Aikman in praising them for their improvement? Not quite. Though only five teams have allowed fewer sacks this season than the Giants, only three have allowed more QB pressures. If we are going to applaud anyone for New York’s low sack-total, it should be Eli Manning and his ability to get rid of the ball in the face of frequent pressure. Whereas last season the Giants’ tackles were the problem, William Beatty and Sean Locklear have been a marked improvement over David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie. Instead, it’s the inside of the Giants’ line that is leaking pressure. Chris Snee and Kevin Boothe are both in the bottom-half of NFL guards in Pass Block Efficiency. However, their performance isn’t as bad as David Baas, whose 15 QB pressures allowed leads all centers.
In years past, a weak interior line would be a death knell for a team playing the Steelers. Not so this season. Through the first eight weeks, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, and Ziggy Hood have been the hands-down worst 3-4 defensive line in the league. In 359 combined run snaps, they have just 12 defensive stops. In 499 combined pass rushes, they’ve pressured the quarterback just 13 times. Facing Baas, Boothe and Snee could be this beleaguered trio’s chance to excel, but nothing they’ve done this season indicates that they’ll do so.
Mike Adams vs. Justin Tuck
Few positional groups have been as scrutinized over the past few seasons as the Steelers’ offensive line. We graded them with the second-worst Pass Blocking Efficiency in 2010, and they were still below-average last year. After first-round pick David DeCastro tore his MCL in the preseason, hopes for any improvement this year grew dim. However the unit has done well, partially thanks to their other top draft pick, Mike Adams. In two starts since right tackle Marcus Gilbert injured his ankle, the rookie out of Ohio State has allowed just four QB pressures on 76 pass-block snaps. He’s also earned a +1.7 run block grade over the past two weeks, as the Steelers had 25 rushes for 164 yards to his side.
Adams may face his toughest test yet this Sunday in Justin Tuck, depending on which version of the DE shows up. In 24 starts over the past two seasons, Tuck has earned a grade of -1.0 or worse in eight games, and a grade of +1.0 or better in six. After catching fire during the Giants’ playoff run last season, the veteran defensive end has been inconsistent again this season. He didn’t tally his first QB pressure until Week 3, and seven of his 17 pressures came in one game against the 49ers. However, his 9.0 Run Stop % is the fourth-highest mark among 4-3 DEs. If Tuck rediscovers his dominance, then he could overmatch the rookie. But if the veteran doesn’t bring his top game, Adams will continue his hot streak.
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