No single unit can successfully carry an entire team on its own on a weekly basis in the NFL. Some teams may have a much better offense than defense, or vice versa, but there will be a time in almost every victory in which key plays must be made in every phase, including special teams.
It gets at the root of the concept of complementary football that Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin brings up so frequently. Does the defense do what the offense needs it to do? Does the special teams do what the defense needs it to do? Do they take advantage of the situations the other phases provide, or minimize their disadvantages?
Today we’ll look at three players for the Steelers, one for each phase, who may have to step up today against the Cleveland Browns. They may not necessarily be the most obvious players, and certainly won’t be the only players who will be counted upon to do their job, but they are three players I believe could potentially be particularly important in this game.
Offense: WR George Pickens
All three of today’s selections are related to injuries, and as such were easy choices. The first one is obvious. George Pickens is the Steelers’ clear number one receiver at least until Diontae Johnson gets back. This is his window to prove that he is that guy, a dominant, true number one.
He was largely held in check during the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, and the Browns have a very good secondary, particularly at cornerback. It remains to be seen if the Steelers’ pass protection will even hold up well enough to get him the ball. In that case, he’s going to need to get open quicker and show off that more nuanced and timing-based route tree.
Defense: DL Keeanu Benton
Maybe I’m going a bit out on a limb here, but I see Keeanu Benton taking on a huge role moving forward already. If he’s not formally starting by designation, he will be something like a co-starter, sharing a significant number of snaps, especially in nickel packages with two down linemen.
The Steelers are going to need some big bodies in the trenches who are also agile enough to win one-on-ones against this very talented Browns offensive interior. Grappling with Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio isn’t fun, so they will have to rely on their most talented linemen. Benton is one of them.
Special Teams: WR Gunner Olszewski
After a solid debut as kick returner last week, RB Anthony McFarland Jr. is missing the second game of the season due to a knee injury. WR Gunner Olszewski was very likely already set to dress because of Johnson’s injury, but now there is no question he will have an active role as the backup kick returner.
And the Steelers are going to need something from the kick return game in this one. Chances are they are not going to keep Cleveland off the scoreboard, and if last week is anything to go by, the offense is going to need all of the field position assistance they can get. If Olszewski can pitch in and help them start off with a couple of short fields, that could go a long way toward achieving victory.