NFL

Three reasons why Steelers could make a late playoff push, including improved offense, strength of schedule

There’s one constant trait the Steelers‘ only three head coaches since 1969 share: An unwillingness to let their teams accept losing. 

That common trait, which started with Chuck Noll, was carried on by Bill Cowher and has since been continued by Mike Tomlin, has allowed the Steelers to compile the NFL‘s best winning percentage since the AFL-NFL merger. It’s why the Steelers have had an NFL-record 19 consecutive non-losing seasons. And it’s how the Steelers may make it 20 straight seasons if they can win five of their last six games. 

Betting against the Steelers — or Tomlin, to be more specific — would be unwise. Pittsburgh has never had a losing season under Tomlin, who has previously manufactured .500 (or better) records with strong finishes. The 2013 Steelers finished 8-8 after a 2-6 start. The 2019 Steelers also went 8-8 after a 1-4 start. Last year’s Steelers went 9-7-1 (making the playoffs after snatching the AFC’s seventh seed) after starting 1-3. Tomlin has earned the benefit of the doubt, even with the Steelers’ current predicament at 4-7. 

There are tangible reasons that make a 5-1 finish possible. While unlikely, the Steelers could even make a late run at grabbing the seventh and final playoff spot, like they did a year ago. To do that, Pittsburgh would likely have to at least win nine games in order to have a shot at making the playoffs for a third straight year. 

Let’s take a look at the three main reasons why a winning season — and a possible run at the playoffs — is possible for the black and gold. 

1. Strength of schedule

Pittsburgh’s remaining schedule is one of the league’s easiest. Of Pittsburgh’s remaining five opponents, Baltimore is the only one that is currently above .500. The combined record of the Steelers’ remaining opponents is 24-33, which adds up to a .421 winning percentage. 

Pittsburgh already faced Cleveland back in Week 3. The Steelers led for the middle portion of that game before coming up on the short end of a 29-17 score. Both teams will have new quarterbacks for the Week 18 rematch in Pittsburgh. 

The loss in Cleveland is one of just three double-digit losses the Steelers have suffered this season. The other two came against two of the NFL’s best teams in Buffalo and Philadelphia. Two of the Steelers’ first three losses occurred in games that could have easily had a different outcome. The same can be said of Pittsburgh’s Week 7 loss to Miami that came down to an end zone interception in the final minute. 

Rehashing the Steelers’ previous losses also sheds light on the fact that Pittsburgh, despite some ugly league rankings in several categories, isn’t as bad as its 4-7 record would indicate. That’s why a 5-1 finish isn’t a terribly big leap. 

Pittsburgh resolved several of its previous issues during Monday’s win over the Colts. The Steelers had better execution (especially in weighty moments) and had fewer self-inflicted wounds. This allowed the Steelers to overcome the typical speed bumps and unit malfunctions (looking at you, special teams) that happen during a game. 

The schedule is lighter, but the Steelers can’t take their final opponents lightly. The Falcons, currently just a game behind the Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South, boast the NFL’s fourth-best running game and ninth-best red zone offense. The Panthers have played inspired football under interim head coach Steve Wilks and have one of the NFL’s best young defensive players in Brian Burns. All but one of the Raiders’ losses has come in a one score game. 

Rest assured that the Steelers will be up for Cleveland and Baltimore. Pittsburgh will face Deshaun Watson for the first time in the division. They’re much more familiar with Lamar Jackson, who is just 2-3 against Pittsburgh in his career. 

Everyone knows the Steelers’ record without Watt, so there’s no need to once again remind Pittsburgh’s 1-10 mark without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. You could argue the Steelers not having Watt is more significant than the ’90s Bulls not having Michael Jordan. Chicago finished a game shy of the 1995 Eastern Conference finals without Jordan. It’s hard to fathom the Steelers getting within a play or two of the Super Bowl without Watt. 

Watt hasn’t put up monster numbers since returning to the field three weeks ago. But his sheer presence has made a big impact. Tomlin made sure to touch on that moments after the Steelers’ most recent win when a reporter asked him about fellow OLB Alex Highsmith’s emergence. 

“Alex is legit. I think everybody knows that. But at the same time, it’s good to have old 90 on the opposite side of you,” Tomlin said. “I think that helps.” 

Watt’s return fortifies the NFL’s highest-paid defense. And while it hasn’t always played like the league’s highest-paid unit, Pittsburgh’s defense has more than a few things going for it. The unit has displayed a knack for making splash plays, particularly in the form of interceptions. Four different Steelers have made at least two interceptions this season. Levi Wallace, acquired via free agency this offseason, is tied for the team lead with three interceptions and leads the team with 11 pass breakups. 

The league’s worst run defense a year ago, the Steelers’ defense is currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed on the season. Some of that success can be attributed to the addition of Larry Ogunjobi, who was signed this summer a year after helping the Bengals capture the AFC North. 

Pittsburgh has also enjoyed better inside linebacker play this season. Newcomer Myles Jack leads the team in tackles (by a wide margin). Devin Bush has shown vast improvement in what is a contract year for the former first-round pick. The secondary has taken its lumps, as Pittsburgh is currently 30th in the league in passing yards allowed. Injuries have hit them hard over the past month-plus (Ahkello Witherspoon is still on the mend), but the unit is getting back key pieces in time for the stretch run. The secondary continues to be led by Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is currently leading all AFC free safeties in Pro Bowl voting. 

It has other strong parts, but Watt is the engine that fuels the Steelers’ defense. Watt’s presence changes how defenses attack the Steelers. It also helps open things up or Highsmith (who has reached double-digit sacks for the first time) and other members of the defense. From an intangible standpoint, Watt brings an energy, intensity and confidence that just isn’t there when he’s not on the field. 

Watt’s return is, and will continue to be, significant. Just ask Joe Burrow, who was victimized by two jaw-dropping plays from Watt this season. 

“I’ve never seen plays like that before by a defensive lineman,” Burrow said of Watt after Watt recorded his second interception of the season off him two weeks ago. “He’s made two of them against me this year. I’d love to say there’s something I can do about that, but there’s just nothing I can do about that.” 

3. Offense finding its way 

Pittsburgh’s offense was never going to be a juggernaut this season, but few could have envisioned things being as bad as it’s been at times this season. The team quickly made the switch from Mitch Trubisky to Kenny Pickett after the offense scored just four touchdowns in the season’s first 18 quarters. Pickett was quickly thrown to the fire and has gone through the typical growing pains associated with being a rookie starting quarterback. 

Pittsburgh’s play-calling has justifiably received a heavy amount of criticism. The criticism reached its highest point after Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt pretty much called the Steelers’ offense predictable

The Steelers’ uncertain quarterback situation to start the season undoubtedly contributed to some of the play-calling issues. Pittsburgh’s offense really didn’t have an identity under Trubisky. It seems to have started to establish one with Pickett following its Week 9 bye. The Steelers have run more two tight end sets while leaning more of the run. This worked in the Steelers’ Week 10 win over New Orleans but was temporarily shaken the following week against Cincinnati when backup running back Jaylen Samuels left with an injury. 

Despite Najee Harris‘ injury on Monday night, the Steelers stuck with the running game. The decision paid off, with Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland rushing for a combined 92 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Pickett has also contributed to the running game while continuing to make strides in the passing game. He hasn’t thrown an interception in three games after throwing eight in his first five games. Pickett has continued to strengthen his rapport with fellow rookie George Pickens and tight end Pat Freiermuth. He’s started to trust more of his teammates, as 10 different Steelers caught passes during the win over the Colts. 

Pickett has shown many of the qualities that made the Steelers all but sprint to the podium to draft him with the 20th pick in April’s draft. The former Pitt standout has displayed the accuracy former GM Kevin Colbert raved about shortly after drafting him. He’s continued to make better decisions with the ball without becoming too conservative with his decisions. Pickett also possesses intangible strengths that appear to have endeared him to his teammates. 

Pickett has the luxury of playing behind a better offensive line than his predecessor, future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, has during his last season. While not confused with the “Great Wall of Dallas,” Pittsburgh’s offensive line has made strides throughout the past several months. Pickett has largely received good protection, while the Steelers’ running backs are on pace to have their highest yards-per-carry average in over a decade (h/t Ray Fittipaldo of the Post-Gazette). The unit still needs to do a better job avoiding costly penalties that often ends drives before they can get started. 


On paper, the Steelers are a better team than last year’s squad. The main differences between this team and that team is Roethlisberger and a healthier Watt. Those differences this season played a big role in the Steelers being in the position they’re in now, as they are currently three games under .500 and three games behind the AFC’s seventh-seeded team. 

The Steelers’ talent, however, should be good enough to make things interesting during the season’s final six weeks. Regardless of what happens, it should be a very interesting six games for the Steelers, who could shake up the AFC standings while setting the tone for better seasons ahead. 



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