Why playoff teams are likely hoping Steelers stay on the outside looking in
After Sunday’s 33–20 road victory over the rival Bengals in one of those classic, rip-snorting AFC North backyard brawls, the Steelers are rolling. They’ve won four of their past five games, scored at least 30 points for a franchise-record five consecutive games and are back in the division race now that Andy Dalton’s on the shelf for an extended period with a fractured thumb.
The Steelers are the proverbial “Team No One Wants To Face” in the postseason, mostly thanks to their high-flying, how-the-heck-do-you-stop-them offense. The Steelers should and will strike fear into any of the AFC’s top seeds, be it the Patriots, Broncos and Bengals (if they don’t implode without Dalton)
That’s if the Steelers get into the playoffs. Which is kind of a big if.
Despite how unstoppable they’ve looked over the last few games, with three games left in the season, the Steelers are on the outside looking in on the field at 8–5. The Jets and Chiefs, also 8–5, hold the two AFC wild-card spots through Week 14 because of their edge in conference records. If all three teams win out, the Steelers will leapfrog the Jets and take that sixth seed.
The Chiefs, with the Ravens, Browns and Raiders remaining on their schedule, don’t face a team with a winning record down the stretch, making them a strong favorite to grab one of the spots. The Jets, after taking on the Cowboys on Saturday, play host to the top-seeded Patriots and finish with the Rex Ryan Bowl at Buffalo.
The Steelers have what could be a season-deciding showdown with the Broncos (10–3) on Sunday at Heinz Field before closing with two road games at the sad-sack Ravens and Browns.
But if the Steelers do get into the dance, they’ll certainly be a perplexing partner, particularly for opposing defenses.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 363 passing yards in the past five games. He’s in command of an offense that dreamed of averaging 30 points per game before the season (they’re at 26.5 thanks a foot injury that forced Roethlisberger to miss four games). Roethlisberger is accurate short and deep, and isn’t afraid to keep drives alive with his feet.
In many ways, Roethlisberger is underappreciated. He’s won two Super Bowl titles and been to another, but he (rightfully) hasn’t received full credit for it because each of those teams were led by dominant defenses (first or third in points allowed each trip). Roethlisberger posted a career-high 104.1 passer rating in 2007, but at other times early in his career, the Steelers had the running game and the defense to balance out the growing pains of a burgeoning star who tended to get careless with the ball—he has combined for at least 19 interceptions and fumbles lost in four different seasons.
But then, in 2013, the defense slipped out of the top 10 in points allowed, and it promptly turned into The Roethlisberger Show in Pittsburgh, as the offense went from 22nd in points scored in 2012, to 16th, to seventh and now fifth. Even with an 8–8 record in 2013 thanks to a rash of injuries, Roethlisberger was outstanding, going over 4,200 yards for the just the second time in his career. Last season, Roethlisberger led the league with 4,952 yards and posted 32 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This season, he’s on pace to set career highs in completion percentage (67.2), yards per game (332.1) and QBR (78.13).
Of course, Roethlisberger has never had this kind of weaponry at his disposal. The Steelers are a matchup nightmare with the incomparable Antonio Brown on the outside and a dangerous supporting cast. There isn’t a route that Brown can’t run, and with a rare blend of hands, quickness and explosive speed, he’s a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. Even as a focal point for opposing defenses, Brown has averaged 9.6 catches and 135.8 yards in the past five games and has three touchdowns in that stretch.
Martavis Bryant, at 6'4" and 211 pounds, is the perfect power running mate to Brown’s flash and dash. With strong hands and 4.42 speed in the 40-yard dash, opponents also need help covering Bryant, who has averaged 5.5 catches and 102.5 yards in the past four games. He missed the first four games due to a suspension and sat out his first game back with a knee injury, so teams that played the Steelers early like the Patriots haven’t had to game plan for this version of the offense.
Throw in reliable tight end Heath Miller (who posted 10-catch games twice this season), receiver Markus Wheaton (18.4 yards per catch average and three touchdowns) and running back DeAngelo Williams (eight touchdowns in relief of the injured Le’Veon Bell), and the Steelers can match any team in the league point for point.
Defensively, the Steelers are still a far cry from the Steel Curtain or even any of the recent defense-first Super Bowl teams. But they are 11th in the league in points allowed at 20 per game and have allowed 20 points or less seven times this season, including four in the past six games. If the Steelers’ defense can hold opponents in the neighborhood of 20 points per game, they should feel very confident in their chances to win with that offense. To do that against the best quarterbacks in the postseason (see Brady, Tom), Pittsburgh is going to need marked improvement from the pass defense that has allowed 300-yard passers in six of the last nine games. However, it aids the Steelers’ cause that, in recent years, we’ve seen teams ride a hot quarterback to a Super Bowl title (Brady, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Drew Brees) without the benefit of a top five defense.
It’s not going to be easy down the stretch, starting in Week 15 against a Broncos team that is due to be in a bad mood after losing its first game since Brock Osweiler assumed starting duties. The Steelers are going to need to be huge fans of both the Patriots and Bills when they each on the Jets to finish out the year. And Pittsburgh is probably kicking itself and coach Mike Tomlin for even being in this position, from his dubious fourth-down calls in losses to the Ravens (keeping the ball out of Bell’s hands on two failed short conversions) and Seahawks (electing to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Seattle three-yard line when trailing by five points with 3:02 remaining).
But the Steelers’ path to the postseason is right in front of them. They just need to deliver. And with a talented, high-functioning offense, a better-than-ever Roethlisberger and a possibly-good-enough defense, Pittsburgh is a strong threat to make a deep run into the playoffs. So much so that potential postseason opponents are likely hoping the Steelers stays on the outside looking in. They’re that good.