Is 16-0 in sight for Steelers? Plus, the team no one wants to play and more

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Chase Claypool is the latest elite wide receiver the Pittsburgh Steelers have found, and he just might help Mike Tomlin go 16-0, The Las Vegas Raiders could play spoiler, and much more

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 10-0. They look like the most complete team in the NFL on the backs of a menacing and star-studded defense, featuring playmakers at every level. They have a real shot at going undefeated.

But, there’s also an offensive playmaker in Pittsburgh quickly making a name for himself … Rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool.

“I don’t know who I’d compare him to,” former Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl winning head coach Brian Billick tells FanSided. “But, in the deep passing game he seems to have a little Antonio Brown in him.”

Claypool, the Steelers’ second-round pick out of Notre Dame, has burst on the scene in the Steel City, catching 39 passes for 559 yards and eight touchdowns, and adding a pair of rushing touchdowns, giving him 10 scores in his first 10 career games.

“He has a lot of that basketball on grass type of feel to him,” Billick says “Especially when it comes to tracking the deep ball from Ben Roethlisberger. You know, when he can adjust on the fly, look backwards and almost flip upside down to make a catch on those deep passes. He looks like the total package.”

So, what makes Claypool, who ran an absurdly quick 4.42 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, so special?

“He has a really rare combination of size, speed, and athleticism,” a defensive coach who’s team has already lost to the Steelers tells FanSided. “He has great body control and a wide catch radius. He’s tough and willing to do the dirty work in the running game.

“The one area I think he can improve on is as a route-runner, which you can say about most rookies, but as he expands his route tree and becomes a more polished route runner, he’s only going to be a tougher matchup for defenses than he already is.”

The Steelers built a dynasty in the 1970s around the Steel Curtain defense with Hall of Famers like Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and “Mean” Joe Greene. Pittsburgh also won Super Bowls with James Farrior, James Harrison, Ryan Clark, and Troy Polamalu.

But, even as Pittsburgh became the capitol of punishing defensive football, the Steelers also have a storied history of scouting, drafting, and developing elite wide receivers that goes back decades.

“The thing about the Steelers is, they have always had consistency in ownership and coaching, I can only think of three head coaches in their history,” Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame wide receiver Drew Pearson tells FanSided. “Whether it’s at linebacker, defensive back, or wide receiver, they seem to be able to find guys that are ‘Steelers,’ and then develop them up to that level and beyond.”

Today, it’s Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. In his day, Billick butted his head against the glass ceiling of Steelers teams that featured game-breakers like Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress. In between, Pittsburgh has had playmakers like Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace.

What’s the secret? Is there something in the water in Allegheny County?

“I wish I knew,” Billick admitted. “It’s one guy after another. And it’s not just first-round picks. They historically have done an amazing job of finding talent at that position and then developing it.”

Billick and Pearson agree that quarterback play figures into the Steelers’ embarrassment of riches at receiver over their history.

“I think Ben Roethlisberger deserves a lot of credit for that,” Billick explained. “He’s the type of quarterback who doesn’t just get the most out of these guys, but he just always seems so totally in sync with his receivers … He has that ‘I’ll wink, you nod and just run over there for the ball’ type of mentality.”

Roethlisberger, Claypool, and the Steelers’ offense are humming along averaging 29.8 points per game (fourth in the NFL). Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s defense has been stifling opponents by generating boatloads of pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz on the way to a league-high 38 sacks while holding opponents to a league-low 17.4 points per game.

That’s nothing new in Pittsburgh.

“The hallmark of (Mike) Tomlin teams and why they might be able to pull this off [going undefeated] is consistency,” an NFC coach tells FanSided. “Consistency throughout the whole organization. Tomlin preaches chemistry, and it creates synergy. They have their core beliefs and they stick to them.

“When you’re on that staff you ask yourself every day ‘when I turn on the tape, what kind of football do I want to see? The whole building, everyone in that organization has to hold themselves to that standard every single day. And they live that there.”

Looking ahead at the Steelers’ six remaining games, 16-0 with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs seems like a legitimate possibility.

Who beats this team?

Week 12: vs. Baltimore Ravens – Lamar Jackson’s inability to throw deep downfield outside the numbers is now a very real concern for the Ravens. Baltimore could also be without their top two running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins after they test positive for COVID-19.

Week 13: vs. Washington Football Team – Really?

Week 14: at Buffalo Bills – The Bills have the chance to be a real problem. Speaking to coaches and sources around the NFL, Buffalo is one of the teams that the rest of the league fears has a chance to play spoiler for someone. I’d still be shocked if Josh Allen’s rocket launcher of an arm can stay under control against the Steelers’ onslaught.

Week 15: at Cincinnati Bengals – Without Joe Burrow, this game lost all sizzle, and the Bengals every chance at a divisional upset.

Week 16: vs. Indianapolis Colts – If this game were in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium, I’d think Frank Reich’s bunch would have a chance. Philip Rivers, outdoors, two days after Christmas? Good luck …

Week 17: at Cleveland Browns – Wouldn’t that be something. Baker Mayfield, Kareem Hunt, and Jarvis Landry sneak into the AFC playoffs as a Wild Card by snapping the Steelers’ 15-game winning streak? The way the Browns have played in the swirling winds and driving rain of late, if it’s not a picturesque day in The Land, trouble could be a’brewing …

Until someone shows they can beat the Steelers, this is still looking like a team on the express train to a clash with Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

After all that 2020 has dealt us, wouldn’t that be one heck of a three-hour reprieve?

The teams no one wants to play in the NFL Playoffs

Temperatures are plummeting, turkeys are about to be carved on tables across America, and the NFL is rounding into the final six-game sprint, which can only mean one thing; this is when the separation between contenders and pretenders really begins.

Last season, it was the Tennessee Titans that rose up from the pack of mediocrity, as a wild card in the AFC, and picked off the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens on the road to the Conference Championship Game.

So, who is this year’s sleeper team with the chance to wreck a team(s)’ day?

“I’d want no part of the Raiders,” an AFC offensive coordinator tells FanSided.

There are some really compelling parallels between this year’s Raiders and last year’s Titans … Derek Carr was once viewed by many as on his last legs as an NFL starter and the cusp of journeyman backup status, just as Ryan Tannehill was last season before playing his way into a four-year contract worth $118 million signed back in March.

The Raiders’ offense is powered largely by Josh Jacobs and the running game, with the 22-year-old upstart averaging 3.8 yards per carry and with nine touchdowns. Last season, it was Titans running back Derrick Henry who averaged 5.3 yards per carry in the playoffs and scored a pair of touchdowns as Tennessee’s focal point.

Last season, the Titans’ defense held opponents to 20.7 points per game, while Las Vegas is currently allowing 27.6.

An NFC coach on the cusp of a postseason berth tells FanSided he’s glad to be on that side of the bracket. In part, because of the Raiders.

“The thing about Vegas is they can run the ball,” the coach said. “What they do that’s really unique is they like to play out of big personnel groupings that can spread you out. That makes them dangerous.”

There is, though, a team that the NFC coach needs to worry about.

The team that sources around the league can’t stop raving about is the Arizona Cardinals.

“Arizona could get really hot, really quick,” a source tells FanSided. “A team that can score is always dangerous. Especially in the playoffs.”

The Cardinals’ future is as bright as can be, with the dynamic head coach/QB/wide receiver combo of Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk in place.

We’ll find out in the coming weeks, but Arizona’s future might arrive much quicker than many expect.

Thanksgiving foods ranked

Speaking of Thanksgiving … The turkeys might be a little smaller this year, the tables a bit less crowded as we all try to do our part to curb the spread of COVID-19 and protect each other. But, there’s still plenty to be thankful for.

And more than enough to feast on.

We take a break from the regularly scheduled football analysis for a preview of what my plate will look like on Thursday, and how the delectable Thanksgiving foods are ranked:

  1. Stuffing – This is definitive. I could eat the stuff by the truckload.
  2. Mac and cheese – No Thanksgiving plate is complete without a heaping helping. Or three.
  3. Mashed potatoes – A mountain of mashed potatoes is the perfect buffer between the mac and any overflowing gravy. Pro tip: skip the gravy, top the taters with melted butter. Thank me later.
  4. Turkey – Just remember to baste the bird. No one likes dry, chewy turkey …
  5. Corn – Corn counts as a vegetable, right? Right?

Truth Hurts

Much was written in this space last week about Carson Wentz’s dramatic regression, and the Eagles’ murky future as general manager Howie Roseman stares down the barrel of uncertainty that comes with being at least $63.5 million OVER the cap this coming offseason.

After watching every one of Wentz’s snaps on Sunday in Cleveland, there’s only one conclusion that can be drawn: It’s time to give Jalen Hurts meaningful snaps.

This isn’t just about evaluating Hurts’ trade value — let’s face it, he might be the franchise’s future — or giving Wentz a different perspective to right himself mentally.

No, after seeing Wentz hold onto the football for an eternity in the end zone before getting sacked for a safety, lofting a pass somewhere in the direction of a half-interested Alshon Jeffery near the pylon and looking completely out of sync en route to tossing his league-high 14th interception and getting sacked for a league-high 40th time in a loss to the Browns, it’s becoming apparent that Hurts might give the Eagles their best chance to win.

To be clear, Carson Wentz isn’t going anywhere.

Trading Wentz this this offseason — even if the Eagles can find a suitor — would create a $33 million dead money charge. But, the Eagles are an absolute mess right now, head coach Doug Pederson can’t seem to right the ship in terms of playcalling around Wentz’s struggles, and at times even runs Hurts out onto the field for what are becoming less and less effective and more and more predictable gadget plays.

If jobs in Philadelphia are on the line, and there is a feeling around the league that both Roseman and Pederson are skating on thin ice, figuring out whether Wentz is salvageable long-term should be secondary to pulling out all the stops to capture a very winnable NFC East division championship.

It seems readily apparent that Wentz is incapable of doing that this year, and the Eagles need to find out of Hurts can.

Dez Bryant turning back the clock

Dez Bryant, signed to the Ravens’ practice squad on Oct. 27, made his return to action in Sunday’s 30-24 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

With the exception of tight end Mark Andrews, Bryant was the most consistent receiver on the field for the Ravens on Sunday afternoon. Bryant caught four of his five targets for 28 yards, as Lamar Jackson produced a 90.0 passer rating when targeting him.

The feeling among sources around the league is that Bryant not only could be on the cusp of a breakout performance, but that if he continues to improve, the Ravens just might commit to him long-term.

What I’ll be watching

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

My preseason Super Bowl pick.

One team looks to be holding up its end; Patrick Mahomes leading a furious comeback in the final 90 seconds on the road against the Raiders on Sunday night was an emphatic statement. Unless you’re leading by two scores inside of two minutes, it’s going to be difficult to beat the Chiefs.

Meanwhile, for a stretch this season, Tampa Bay looked like the class of the NFC with a ferocious and talented defense complementing what looked like a vintage Tom Brady offense with Maseratis at wide receiver in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and tight end Robert Gronkowski.

But, Tampa has lost two of their last three games, including a dreadful two interception performance from Brady on Monday night against Sean McVay, Jared Goff, and the Los Angeles Rams.

Brady has never made the Super Bowl as a wild card, and after dropping two games against the New Orleans Saints, the Buccaneers need this game.

As Brady has struggled the past three weeks, Mahomes has played his way back to the forefront of the NFL MVP race and the Chiefs have the ability to win anywhere. That’s especially true given Andy Reid is the winningest road coach in NFL history. Homefield advantage might not matter for the Chiefs as much as it does for Tampa, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt if they can catch the Steelers.

Will Brady and the Buccaneers right the ship? Or will the legend of Mahomes grow once more by out-dueling the greatest quarterback to play the game?

Buckle up, because this has the chance to be an instant classic, and maybe even a preview of the game we’ll see in Tampa Bay in a few months …

Quotable

“We have the best backfield in the league. There is no question. Those guys are top five backs each, and there is something special.”

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield on his team’s running game

He might be right. Kareem Hunt is the NFL’s ninth-leading rusher this season, averaging 4.4 yards per carry with four touchdowns, while Nick Chubb is a bruising blunt force back who is averaging six yards per carry with five touchdowns.

Together, Chubb and Hunt have combined for 1,219 yards and nine touchdowns. As the Browns have shown over and over again this season, particularly when playing in the elements, they are at their best when they are pounding the running game.

Sitting at 7-3, playing this style of football, the Browns are going to be dangerous down the stretch and could play spoiler in the postseason.

Final thought

There are three games currently scheduled for Thanksgiving, a dozen more on Sunday, and Eagles vs. the Seahawks closing out the weekend on Monday night.

Enjoy them.

There’s no telling how many more weeks the NFL is going to be able to get through an entire slate of games this season.

Hospitals are about to reach capacity in parts of Pennsylvania. Same in Tucson, and other places across the country amid uncontrollable community spread of COVID-19 in an explosive third wave of the pandemic that has killed over 260,000 Americans. It’s entirely possible, even likely that over a million new cases will result from Thanksgiving gatherings and the related travel alone.

As the virus burns through the communities where players and coaches live, it is going to get more difficult to protect them. College Football has already seen over 89 games canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 this season.

So far, the NFL has done an outstanding job of testing, isolating positive cases and contact tracing, the kind of job that makes you wonder how much closer to normal we’d be if only their protocols were scaleable to broader society.

Still, there’s a chance that the normalcy of Sunday routines could be disrupted if the situation continues to deteriorate across the country and the virus gets more difficult to keep out of facilities.

There are, of course, more important things than football. Do your part by wearing a mask, staying home when you can, and social distancing when you can’t. The sad reality is in some parts of the country if you get sick in the next couple weeks and need a hospital bed there might not be one waiting for you.

Matt Lombardo is the site expert for GMenHQ, and writes Between The Hash Marks each Wednesday for FanSided. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattLombardoNFL.





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