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Inbox: Defense is Pittsburgh's backbone

They are the definition of a crunch-time team

LB Alex Highsmith

Donn from Oshkosh, WI

I noticed Sunday that both the Packers and Rams coaching staffs were wearing brown hoodies with their team logos on them. I saw the same thing in a couple of other games I watched. Was this for something specific?

That's this year's Salute to Service apparel across the league. Now on sale at a pro shop near you.

Nick from Plainwell, MI

Good morning Insiders! How has Pickett looks so far for the Steelers? It seems they've been riding the defense for the most part this year.

Defense is Pittsburgh's backbone, no question about it. They ask Pickett to be efficient, protect the football, and occasionally hit a big one to Pickens, who's averaging 17.4 yards per catch. The Steelers are plus-8 in turnover margin, with plus-9 best in the league right now. That's a huge reason they're 5-3.

Gordon from Newport Beach, CA

Could the timing ever be better to meet a Steelers team with the lowest scoring offense?

Don't underestimate these guys. They make you play a full 60 minutes. In four of their five wins, they've trailed entering the fourth quarter. They are the definition of a crunch-time team.

Joe from Swansea, IL

Boy, these Steelers are going to be a test. Tomlin's teams are always tough, disciplined and well-coached, and playing at the Stadium-Formerly-Named-For-A-Ketchup-Brand is always challenging. Are the keys to victory obvious, or what else do we need other than a cleaner, more disciplined effort ourselves?

You can't beat yourself against the Steelers, because they capitalize on mistakes. They've been outgained by 100 yards per game, including more than 40 per game on the ground. They possess the ball an average of six minutes fewer per game than their opponent and they've run 70 fewer plays. They convert on third down at a lower rate than their opponent (36.7% to 40%). They've been outscored 98-55 in the first halves of games, and by 30 points overall on the season. They win with turnovers, fourth-quarter football, and a kicker who's missed only once all season, from 61 yards out.

Caleb from Knoxville, TN

Who's one Steelers player flying under the radar right now?

Alex Highsmith. The headline-maker is T.J. Watt, of course, and understandably so with the 9½ sacks. But Highsmith has 4½ sacks, 13 QB hits, five TFLs, a pick-six and two forced fumbles. He was an absolute beast last Thursday vs. Tennessee.

Paul from Northglenn, CO

How impact-filled would stacking a road win onto the best performance to date be for team psyche?

Week 1 was this team's best performance, and they built on it for three quarters in Week 2 before things went south. They will need to build on this for all four quarters to win in Pittsburgh.

Jordan from Cedar Rapids, IA

The defense as a whole was fun to watch this week but what stood out to me was the secondary looking like an elite unit. CV stepped up and owned his new role after the Sul trade, Owens delivering some hard hits and getting in the backfield, and saw Ja laying out for some jaw-dropping deflections. It was great to see everyone step up, especially considering all the changes we've seen at those positions this year.

It was an aggressive showing, perhaps in part because they didn't fear a backup QB beating them over the top. They have to be prepared for these upcoming opponents to probe ways to take advantage of that aggressiveness.

Brandon from Summerville, SC

I might be imagining this, but it seemed like Jaire Alexander usually lined up on the right side of the field with Rasul here, but with Carrington Valentine playing he went to the left side. If that's the case, is there a certain reason behind it? Is it just a comfort thing, or maybe to not have the rookie cornerback and safety playing on the same side?

It appeared to me Alexander was traveling with Cooper Kupp for at least a portion of the game, so that dictated the secondary alignments, at least in certain situations. Those decisions are game-plan driven.

Tom from New Braunfels, TX

Glad for a win, let's hope they can build on that! When Aaron Jones scored the first TD, he looked as if he asked the ref if he could take the ball. Usually that is for some milestone, but the TV announcers did not mention anything. Do you know why he wanted that ball? On a related note, Luke Musgrave did not take the ball on his first ever TD, wondering if someone grabbed that for him?

Jones jumped in front of Paul Hornung and Donald Driver with his 63rd career TD to move into seventh by himself on the franchise's all-time list. I'm sure Red Batty made sure to get Musgrave's TD ball.

Josh from Newhall, CA

I've got to admit I wasn't going to be jumping for joy for that performance despite the win, but the sequence of plays to finish off the game changed that a bit for me. The interception, the contested catch on the deep ball, the TD to Musgrave, and the fourth-down stop…all things that have been struggles. Seemed almost cathartic. Hopefully…

A string of crunch-time plays like that will be an absolute necessity this week.

Juan from San Antonio, TX

I'm a bit concerned about Anders Carlson's missed FGs just before halftime the past two games (yes, he did make the mulligan against the Vikes). Do you think the change to cooler weather is having any effect or perhaps something else?

Couldn't tell you, but it's three games in a row before halftime now, including Denver, though in his defense, the edge pressure from the offside Minnesota defender probably affected that one he clanked. It was a little disconcerting to see how much hook one of his second-half makes had last Sunday. I'm sure they're dissecting every attempt, and they'll keep after it. It's a constant process of refinement.

Glen from Leesburg, VA

In addition to the Packers' offense and defense showing some signs of improvements, it was great to see the special teams turn in some nice plays in the kickoff and punt return groups. Nixon had the 51-yard kickoff return to start the second half and Reed had a 22-yard punt return. Now they just need to take advantage of those sparks with touchdowns. As soon as this team learns how to get out of their own way, they might have something really special.

I thought it was interesting LaFleur brought up the productive returns Monday and felt they should've been even better.

Mark from St. Pete Beach, FL

Gentlemen: Judging by what we saw from the rookies Sunday I'd say this year's draft was a huge success. Would you agree?

Anybody in this league can make a few good plays and have a good game. Happens all the time. The question that never goes away is can he do it again?

Roger from McGrath, AK

Jon Runyan was flagged twice on fourth down but on the first the officials announced the penalty on 73, not 76. Replay on the first showed 73 well back and Runyan and others were all tight against the line. With the wrong announcement could that have given Runyan the misperception that his alignment was fine, leading to the second penalty or is a correction given to the sidelines somehow, at least in time to prevent the second call?

Based on Runyan's comments to reporters, it doesn't appear he was ever made aware the first flag was on him. An unfortunate breakdown in communication, it seems.

Pike from Tomahawk, WI

Ruminating on the Dontayvion Wicks fumble. There are no absolutes in football. If there was opponent contact, no fumble. No opponent contact, fumble…so ground CAN cause a fumble. Wondering if the ball would have bounced out of bounds would the perception of the refs changed to, "He didn't complete the process of the catch through contact with the ground," and all the talking heads would have nodded in agreement. I know it shouldn't make a difference, but perception is our reality. Thoughts?

Turnovers are automatically reviewed, so the initial reception had to be confirmed via that process.

Tony from Wauwatosa, WI

Who was the last player to kick a field goal who substituted for the kicker because of an injury?

I saw ESPN's Field Yates reported prior to Dare Ogunbowale last Sunday, Miami's Wes Welker was the last non-kicker to make a field goal in an NFL game, back in 2004. Coincidentally, it was also a 29-yarder.

Neil from Tunbridge Wells, UK

Can a team get the same officiating crew more than once during the regular season?

Yes, but it doesn't happen too often, and I've rarely if ever seen a three-peat. Last year, the Packers had 15 different crews for their 17 games, getting Bill Vinovich's and Scott Novak's crews twice, but that was it. The year prior, they had 13 different crews in the regular season, seeing four twice. This year, no repeats so far.

In the spirit of the holidays, Packers players spent time at Better Days Mentoring in Green Bay, giving coats to those in need.

Joshua from Milwaukee, WI

Regarding the competition committee's borderline negligence in not banning the tush push in the offseason, do you think the play keeping drives alive and putting points on the board influenced the decision? If we were discussing a reverse tush push that favored the defense, would it be banned already?

Probably so. Valid point.

Tucker from Belton, TX

The NFL Circle of Parity has officially been completed. Every team has now beaten a team who has beaten a team who has beaten a team and so on to the point where you can draw a direct line from any team to any other team with victorious common opponents. As an example, the Packers beat the Bears, who beat the Commanders, who beat the Falcons, all the way around the league to the Broncos beating the Packers to start it over.

I don't do well with dizzy, but thanks for the knowledge.

Dave from Hollywood, MD

The Cubs! Say it ain't so, Craig.

My thought exactly. It's been almost two days and I still am having a hard time processing this one, in the selfish sense. I get it from Counsell's perspective, I truly do. But it speaks to the inequities in baseball more than anything else, which I'm constantly reminded of with a full-time job in the salary-cap world of the NFL. It's not just the contract the Cubs were willing to offer Counsell, but he also knows the Cubs have unlimited resources to pursue any player acquisitions they desire to build a championship-contending team. The luxury tax means nothing to a team that really wants to go for it. It's a faux constraint, not a legitimate one like in the NFL. That's the reality and a manager as good as Counsell looking to build a legacy that includes a World Series title just gave himself a better chance to earn one without moving his family out of the Midwest. It makes all the sense in the world. Out of gratitude for what he accomplished with the Brewers, I'd also like to wish him all the success in the world, except it's the Cubs, so I hope he and his new team fail miserably in their quest.

Jay from Wilmington, NC

Kind of a silly question, but here it goes. Should my dad and I drive 10 hours to attend the game Sunday? I know, not a real problem to have. I was at last year's game in Washington, and this year's in Atlanta. I don't think I can handle another close loss. Do you think we can pull this one off? How do you think Steelers fans would treat us? I feel it would be like going to Arrowhead, mutual respect due to history of the teams and opposite conferences.

I hope you're right. If you do venture out, be sure you have a full tank of gas and half a pack of cigarettes. Oh, and go in the dark, wearing sunglasses.

Kevin from Winter, WI

Not a question, but a plea, all NW Wisconsinites that are covered by the KQDS Fox 21 TV station, unite! There is legislation in the state house to mandate the Packers game be available in WI instead of being preempted by the (stupid) Vikings game. This must be passed ASAP! Not that I have anything against Wayne and Larry, but the beer bill is WAY higher when you have to go to the sports bar to see the game. GO PACK GO

I just want to tell you both good luck, we're all counting on you.

William from Newburgh, IN

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single win." – Sitting Bull

A little more profound than Jake Elwood or Dr. Rumack, I'll grant. Happy Wednesday.

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