Here’s why the Packers will post their first win in Pittsburgh…

Packers at Steelers: Three Reasons for Optimism

Rashan Gary

The Green Bay Packers (3-5) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3) will clash on Sunday. Here’s why the Packers will post their first win in Pittsburgh in more than a half-century.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – When the Green Bay Packers play at the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, they’ll attempt to do what they haven’t done since 1970.

The Packers haven’t returned from Pittsburgh with a victory since Phil Bengtson was coach.

“That’s crazy thinking about it,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said.

On Dec. 6, 1970, Larry Krause returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, Bart Starr threw two touchdown passes and Terry Bradshaw threw more interceptions (four) than completions (three). No doubt the Packers would love Keisean Nixon, Jordan Love and Kenny Pickett to duplicate that recipe.

Here are three reasons why the Packers, who are three-point underdogs at FanDuel Sportsbook, will pull off the upset.

1. Breakout Potential

The Steelers own the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoff standings. It’s not because of their offense.

Pittsburgh’s defense remains as tough as ever. The pass rush, led by outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, is elite. Rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. could be a stud. Opposing quarterbacks have the third-lowest completion percentage. They force takeaways by the bushel.

All that said, there is an opportunity for Jordan Love and his receivers to have a breakout game, so long as last week wasn’t a blip on the radar.

Including 172 yards by the Raiders’ Davante Adams and 154 yards by the Rams’ Puka Nacua – two receivers the Packers shut down – the Steelers have allowed four individual games of more than 125 receiving yards. They will miss the presence of veteran safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

After a five-game slump in which he threw eight interceptions, Love is coming off a strong performance against a quality Rams defense. His 76.9 percent completion rate was the best of his career and his 8.77 yards per attempt was his second-best.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin raved about the Packers’ pass-catching group this week.

Christian Watson – a “take the top off the coverage” receiver – had a big-time catch on the clinching drive. Romeo Doubs – a “combat-catch guy” – has provided steady production. Jayden Reed – the “most complete” slot receiver in this year’s draft – makes a couple explosive plays every week. Tight end Luke Musgrave had a 25-yard catch and 20-yard touchdown in a bit of a breakout performance.

The play of Watson, who the Packers chose over Steelers receiver George Pickens in the 2022 draft, will be key because he’s the game-changing weapon. The Packers are hoping that leaping catch in the fourth quarter will kick-start an encore to last year’s big-play-filled second half of the season.

“He went up and made a great catch,” Love said. “I think everybody wants to make those plays and it’s a great feeling when you do make those plays. That’s been a challenge that we’ve been on him about is making those plays down the field and that was a great example of it. I think there will be more of those plays going forward.”

2. Shutdown Potential

Green Bay’s offense looks like the 2011 Packers by comparison to Pittsburgh’s production through eight games.

The Steelers rank 29th in scoring. They are 28th in yards per play, 26th in rushing per play and 25th in passing per play. They are bad on third down (21st) and worse in the red zone (27th).

It’s not that the Steelers lack talent. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren are a solid one-two punch at running back, and George Pickens and Diontae Johnson are a quality tandem of receivers.

The problems start at quarterback. Pickett is 25th in passer rating – one spot below Love – 30th in completion percentage and 26th in yards per attempt.

Moreover, left tackle Dan Moore and center Mason Cole are vulnerable – meaning potential big games for Rashan Gary and Kenny Clark – and underrated tight end Pat Freiermuth is on injured reserve.

Added together, the Steelers’ offense could have a long day against a Packers defense that has figured out how to stop the run en route to moving up to 10th in points allowed per game.

A key part in Green Bay’s defensive success has been its tackling – and that will be a big deal considering Harris has forced more broken tackles (20) than all of Green Bay’s backs combined (16), according to Pro Football Focus.

According to SportRadar, the Packers have the seventh-best tackling percentage in the NFL. Their three inside linebackers, De’Vondre Campbell, Isaiah McDuffie and Quay Walker (who will be inactive on Sunday) rank among the top 11 in tackling percentage, according to PFF.

Moreover, when they have missed a tackle, oftentimes there’s been another defender on the scene.

“If you have multiple people there at the point of attack, you’re going to have a much better probability of getting the runner or whoever’s got the ball in their hand on the ground,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

“We’ve definitely looked a little more aggressive in terms of our playstyle, and I think that’s the mark of a good defense. Eleven hats to the ball flying around and just being aggressive in what you see, trusting what you see. When you see it, you go attack. I think our guys have embraced that.”

3. Watching in Slow Motion

The Packers, who had scored just nine points in the first halves of their previous five games, scored a second-quarter touchdown last week. It was perhaps the greatest sporting feat since the U.S. hockey team beat the mighty Russians.

On Sunday, it will be the equivalent of the pointing Spider-Man meme.

The Packers remain last in the NFL with 4.5 points per game in the first half. The Steelers are 28th with 6.9 points per game in the first half.

The Steelers scored 10 points in the first half against Tennessee last week. Before that, they had scored three field goals in the first halves of their previous four games.

By first-half completion percentage, Pickett is a league-worst 54.4 percent. His 67.4 passer rating is better than only Love (67.0) and Daniel Jones (61.8).

So, no, don’t expect the Packers to run the Steelers out of the stadium during the opening 30 minutes on Sunday. But they should be able to hang around, which will allow LaFleur to stick with his game plan and run the ball rather than play catch-up against the touted Steelers pass rush.

“Obviously, we don’t do a good enough job in the first half,” LaFleur said. “Just need to start [faster], got to adapt quicker and have a better plan, and go out there and execute at a higher level, with more urgency.”

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