Let’s get this out of the way. There’s no way in hell I’m picking the Pack to win in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1970. I was in third grade on that December Sunday when the Green Bay Packers D flustered a young Terry Bradshaw, who was still four years away from leading his team to the first of four Super Bowls over the next decade.
The Pack has brought better teams into the Steel City than this one and lost over the years. That said, this may be one of the weaker Pittsburgh Steelers teams they’ve faced. They’re 5-3, but they’re winning with smoke and mirrors. Pittsburgh’s opponents have outgained them in every game this season and are -30 in point differential. They’re averaging 16.6 points per game and giving up over 20. By contrast, the Packers are +1, averaging 20.0 ppg and giving up 19.9.
The Steelers thought second-year QB Kenny Pickett was poised for a breakout season, especially after an impressive preseason. But he’s been mediocre at best. OC Matt Canada’s scheme is getting most of the blame, so Pickett will get another year, likely under a new offensive coach. Their offensive line is average, they haven’t been able to run, and Pickett has struggled to get the most out of their two stud receivers, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson.
Pittsburgh’s defense is not intact. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is poised to miss another game, and linebacker Cole Holcomb was lost for the season last week. They struggle to stop both the run and the pass. But the Steelers rush the passer and take the ball away well. The biggest reason they’re 5-3 is that they have 16 takeaways and are +8 in turnover differential, tied for third-best in the league.
Other than protecting the football, committing to the running game is the road to keeping this one close in the fourth quarter. Aaron Jones appears to finally be 100%. He got 24 touches last week and wasn’t wearing the dreaded red jersey in practice this week. Even AJ Dillon has looked more like his old self in the last few weeks. If the Pack can make hay on the early downs, avoid stupid penalties, and keep Jordan Love out of obvious passing situations, studs like JJ Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Cam Heyward will have to work a little harder to do their damage.
The Steelers are thinking the same thing. Their running game finally broke loose last week, with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combining for 166 yards against the Tennessee Titans. The Pack did a great job stopping the run last week, but the Rams offense was anemic. Pittsburgh will be a stiffer test. They’ll again be without Quay Walker, who’ll miss another game with a groin injury.
Jaire Alexander is also on the shelf again, this time with a shoulder injury suffered last week. That means Green Bay’s cornerback group will be Carrington Valentine, Corey Ballentine, Keisean Nixon, and Robert Rochell on Sunday. Pickens has been grumpy about his lack of targets lately. It could be a great test for Valentine if he’s lining up against him. He looked great in his first start.
Green Bay’s list of questionable players includes Kenny Clark, Rudy Ford, Josh Myers, Yosh Nijman, and Jon Runyan. Needless to say, the Pack needs virtually all of those guys active to think about pulling the upset.
They need to keep the penalties to a minimum, protect the football, stop the run, and get off the field on third down. The Packers also can’t make any special teams mistakes. Last week, they didn’t do most of those things and still coasted to a victory. They need to play a much cleaner game on Sunday.
The Pack leads the all-time series 20-16 and won the most important game between these teams on a neutral field in the house that Jerry built when Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson, and Co. brought home the Lombardi. Their losing streak in Pittsburgh sits at five games going back 53 years.
1970 was quite a year. The Beatles broke up, Apollo 13 had us all holding our breath, and the Packers won in Pittsburgh.
Wait a minute, the Beatles just came out with a new song, maybe – no, I can’t do it.