Washington Football Team (4-7) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-0)
Washington is just 4-7, but they’re the most competitive of the four teams in the NFC East, as their -2 point differential is significantly better than their record and significantly better than any other team in the division. If not for an 0-3 record in games decided by a field goal or less, Washington could easily be 5-6 or 6-5 right now, which isn’t amazing or anything, but it’s respectable. That’s despite the fact that they have struggled in metrics that are inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and that are likely to improve going forward, with a -5 turnover margin (tied for 7th worst in the NFL) and a -14.77% net field goal conversion rate. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington actually ranks 7th at +2.16%.
Washington is led by their defense, with a defense that ranks 4th in first down rate allowed over expected at -3.98% and an offense ranks just 25th in first down rate over expected at -1.82%, which is concerning because defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. It’s far from a guarantee that Washington will continue being that good defensively going forward, especially with key players like Matt Ioannidis and Landon Collins out for the year, but any regression by their defense could be offset by their offense, which has improved significantly since turning to Alex Smith under center. They’re also as healthy as they’ve been all season around the quarterback on offense, particularly on the offensive line. My roster rankings don’t have them quite as high as they rank in first down rate differential, but they still rank 17th, suggesting this is legitimately a middling team, despite their record and public perception.
Washington gets a big step up in competition this week in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers have yet to lose a game all season at 11-0, but the Steelers have played a lot of close games, with just two of their 11 wins coming by more than 10 points (both coming against two of the worst teams in the league in the Bengals and Jaguars) and 6 of their 11 wins coming by 7 points or fewer, which is notable, considering this line favors Pittsburgh by 7. Pittsburgh also hasn’t faced a tough schedule, facing the 2nd easiest schedule in the league in terms of opponents expected first down rate differential. If teams like the Jeff Driskel led Broncos, the Garrett Gilbert led Cowboys, the Texans, and the COVID Ravens can keep it within a touchdown with the Steelers, a team like Washington, who is much better than those four, should be able to do so as well.
The Steelers are also a defensive led team, with their defense leading the league in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.65%, but their offense ranking just 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.06%, actually behind Washington, even though Washington was starting Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen at the beginning of the season before Smith came in. The Steelers’ offensive struggles bring them down to 5th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.60%, which isn’t bad, but it’s not as good as their undefeated 11-0 record, which has been built in part by close wins over lesser opponents. Given that offensive performance is more predictive and the Steelers aren’t a significantly better offensive team, it’s hard to justify Pittsburgh being 7-point favorites in this one, especially since they’ll likely be without starting center Maurkice Pouncey and starting running back James Conner for the second straight week and won’t have the benefit of any fans in their home stadium.
This line has shifted significantly from favoring Pittsburgh by 11 on the early line last week, but I think that was just a bad line. The line movement seems to have been almost entirely driven by significant sharp action on the visitor and I don’t think it went far enough. Normally I like to go against significant week-to-week line movements like that, but, even at 7, we’re getting line value with Washington, as my calculated line is Pittsburgh -3.5, giving the Steelers a 3-point edge and about a half point for nominal homefield advantage. Washington is worth a big bet if you can get the full touchdown.
Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Washington Football Team 13
Pick against the spread: Washington +7