The Return of Geno

Geno Smith's first start in nearly four years comes under the bright lights of 'Sunday Night Football'


Line: Steelers -5, Total: 43


  • It’s Been a While…

We accept full responsibility for Russell Wilson’s injury. After spending an entire section last week talking about how durable Wilson was and when he could surpass some all-time NFL Iron Man records, he immediately suffers an injury and will be out for several weeks following surgery on his right middle finger.

So, now we get the first start for Geno Smith in nearly four years. That appearance came after the Giants had decided to move on from Eli Manning, when Smith was a backup for the New York Giants. The interesting part about that? Smith’s start snapped a streak of 210 consecutive regular season starts for Eli Manning. When Smith starts Sunday night against the Steelers, he will snap Russell Wilson’s streak of 149 consecutive regular season starts. In that game, Geno and the Giants lost to the Raiders 24-17 and Smith completed 21-of-34 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. However, he took three sacks and lost two fumbles and the loss dropped Smith’s career record as a starter to 12-19.

Smith has been the backup to Russell Wilson since 2019 and prior to last week and had thrown just five passes in a Seahawks uniform, all in a 40-3 blowout win over the Jets in 2020 when Wilson was taken out with the game well in hand. The last time Seattle took the field without Russell Wilson under center to begin the game was nearly a decade ago: New Year’s Day, 2012. That was a Week 17 game to close out the 2011 regular season, and the ‘Hawks would select Wilson in the third round of the ensuing NFL Draft. The starter for Pete Carroll in that regular season finale was Tavaris Jackson, who threw for 222 yards in a 23-20 OT loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

  • Ground and Pound

The Steelers had established a reputation over the years of being a team that ran the ball well and played tough defense. While the defense part is still true -- the Steelers ranked in the Top 5 in scoring defense in 2020 and are 10th so far this season -- the running game had practically disappeared. Last week vs. the Broncos, Pittsburgh ended an 11-game streak (including playoffs) in which the club had rushed for fewer than 100 yards. Najee Harris was drafted in the first round to help remedy the ground-game issues, but prior to Week 5 he struggled to get much going. In the first four weeks, Harris ran for 185 yards on 55 carries (3.4 yards per carry). But against Denver, Harris toted the rock 23 times for 122 yards (5.3 YPC), both career-highs.

Despite the team setting a season-high with 147 yards on the ground, the Steelers still rank second-to-last in rushing yards per game, at 73.6 yards (Miami is last at 70.4 entering Week 6). This week presents an excellent opportunity to further improve on that number, and perhaps even start a 100+ yard game streak, facing a Seattle defense that allows the second-most yards on the ground to opponents at 145.2 yards per game (only the LA Chargers are worse at 157.6).

On the other side, Seattle will be without its top running back, Chris Carson, who went on injured reserve this week. The Seahawks have been a middle-of-the-pack running team this season, at 104.0 yards per game (19th in the NFL) and this week they face a strong Pittsburgh defense that ranks in the Top 10 in opponent rushing yards per game (100.4 YPG).


  • Public Not Believing in Geno

Predictably, the public doesn’t think that Geno Smith stands any chance to keep this game in Pittsburgh close, with 68% of the tickets going towards the home team, and that does include sharp action, according to Action Network. However, despite the high volume of bets on Pittsburgh, 55% of the money has gone toward the Seahawks.

The news that Wilson would not play caused a HUGE swing in this line. At books like DraftKings, who puts out lines more than a week in advance, the Seahawks were favored in this game by 2.5 points. However, the shift to Smith immediately moved the line six points and favored the Steelers by 4.5. The heavy ticket percentage then caused it to move farther toward Pittsburgh, sitting now at Steelers -5.

As far as trends, it’s useless to look at Seattle’s recent performances because anything would involve Russell Wilson starting at QB. For the Steelers, they’ve lost four straight against-the-spread as a home favorite, including three straight outright losses (two coming this season already, losing to Raiders in Week 2 and Bengals in Week 3).


  • Get it to DK

Without Wilson, the Seahawks are going to need some big performances from their other stars and the most important is WR DK Metcalf. When targeting Metcalf last week, Smith was 3-for-3 passing and threw a score to the big-bodied wideout. Since Week 3, Seattle QBs have a 149.6 passer rating when targeting Metcalf. While Metcalf and fellow WR Tyler Lockett post nearly identical numbers on the season (both have 25 catches, and Lockett’s 390 receiving yards are just 7 more than Metcalf’s 383), Metcalf does a lot of his damage after the catch, which will be paramount in this matchup. He leads the team with 122 yards-after-catch, and averages 5 YAC/catch. His expected YAC/catch (xYAC/R) is 2.8, which means that he often makes receptions near defenders and then manages to pick up more yards than the average receiver would be expected to gain in the same situation. His +2.2 YAC/R over xYAC/R ranks 13th in the NFL but is the most among the 38 players who have at least 25 catches on the season, according to Next Gen Stats (NGS). Since the beginning of last season, Metcalf has racked up 182 xYAC, the fifth-most in the NFL over that span.

The Seahawks feature one of the most concentrated passing attacks in the NFL, with everything flowing through Metcalf and Lockett. They are the only team in the league with two receivers who garner over 35% of the team’s targeted air yards (Lockett 39.3%, Metcalf 38.8%). The pair complements each other because while Metcalf uses his size (6-foot-4, 235 lbs) to make plays, Lockett is the speed guy who stretches the field (he caught the longest pass of the NFL season in terms of air yards, a ball that traveled 60.9 yards in the air from Russell Wilson).

Last week, the Steelers faced another big-bodied wideout, Denver’s Courtland Sutton (6-foot-4, 216lbs). Sutton posted one of his biggest games of the season, catching seven balls for 120 yards and a score. And the Steelers are in the bottom-10 in the NFL in xYAC/R allowed, according to NGS. It all sets up for Metcalf to have success on Sunday night, success that the shorthanded Seahawks are going to need if they want to pull the upset.