3TFO: Steelers @ Packers, Week 16
Pittsburgh has played better since their 0-4 start to the season, but even with a win over the Bengals on Sunday night the Steelers’ playoff chances are nearly nonexistent. Barring the unlikeliest of scenarios, Pittsburgh will be playing a spoiler role against the team who beat them in their most recent Super Bowl appearance.
Meanwhile, the Packers are coming off an improbable comeback against Dallas after a 23-point halftime deficit. Another December loss by the Lions has surprisingly put the Packers in a position to make the playoffs without outside help. With that said, it will likely take wins each of the last two weeks to clinch the NFC North while a return by Aaron Rodgers remains uncertain.
In the first matchup between these teams since Super Bowl XLV, can the Packers win a third straightgame to stay in the chase for another division title? Or will the Steelers exact revenge for their Super Bowl defeat? Here are three key matchups to focus on during Sunday’s game.
Rookie Running Backs
While the running back position seems to be devalued over the last couple years, the rookie additions to both offenses have had significant impacts throughout the season. Averaging nearly 22 touches per game, Le’Veon Bell has become an integral part of the Steelers’ offense. Even after missing the first three games of the season, Bell has already eclipsed 1,000 total yards this season. His impact is not limited to just the run game though, as he has been targeted by Ben Roethlisberger 23 times over the last three weeks, with 17 receptions and 138 receiving yards.
Fellow second-round pick Eddie Lacy has emerged as the physical running back the Packers’ pass-first offense lacked the last couple years. Lacy, the Packers’ first 1,000 yard rusher since 2009, is our third-ranked running back with a +16.1 overall grade this season. Lacy’s 55 missed tackles forced on rush attempts rank behind only Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson. Although Lacy does not pose as much of a threat in the passing game as other running backs, he still ranks in the Top 10 of our Elusive Rating, which also encompasses receptions. Lacy will continue to be the focal point of the Packers’ offense, especially if Rodgers does not return.
The Turnaround of Jason Worilds
At the start of the season, Jason Worilds was splitting time with rookie Jarvis Jones at the right outside linebacker position in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense. Worilds had little impact early on, tallying six run stops and 17 total pressures over the first nine games, contributing to a -6.6 overall grade. However, an injury to Lamaar Woodley forced Worilds to switch over to the left side—an opportunity in which he has flourished. Since Week 11, he has earned five consecutive ‘green’ grades for a +16.4 cumulative grade, along with 16 run stops and 31 total pressures. With Woodley landing on injured reserve this week, Worilds will likely stay on the left side for the remainder of the season.
Right tackle Don Barclay and right guard T.J. Lang will be tasked with keeping Worilds out of the backfield. Barclay has had some poor outings, but overall his pass blocking has improved compared to late last season when injuries thrust him into the lineup. His weakness this season has been in the run game, especially the last few weeks since returning from a knee injury in November. Once sitting at a -0.1 run block grade in Week 10, his performance has fallen to -7.4 over the last three weeks and now ranks 64th out of 78 qualifying tackles. Lang isn’t quite near his +15.3 performance in 2011, but has had a strong year when not being asked to play center.
Jordy Nelson Versus Ike Taylor
Jordy Nelson continues to have what could be considered his best season as a pro. Nelson, our seventh-ranked wide receiver, has been the most consistent option in the Packers’ pass offense, even in Rodgers’ absence. He has the third-highest catch rate for wide receivers with at least 50 targets at 72% and made two more impressive catches against Dallas.
Nelson has a favorable matchup this week against Steelers’ cornerback Ike Taylor. Taylor’s -15.4 coverage grade ranks second-worst out of 109 cornerbacks. He leads the league this season with 958 yards receiving yards allowed in coverage, which is on pace for the most since we started tracking in 2008. Opposing quarterbacks have a 114.8 QB Rating when throwing into Taylor’s coverage this year and have thrown for five touchdowns in the last five weeks. Regardless of who plays quarterback for the Packers, expect Taylor to continue as one of the most targeted defensive backs in the league.
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