After a Steelers loss, those who bleed black and gold always tend to self-immolate a little. We assume every screw-up was an indicator of a season-destroying problem, and then revel in that negativity. But as the games are about to get quite hairy, I’ve been thinking about some reasons for optimism in Steeler Nation. Here are nine:
1 – The AFC North is still firmly in the Steelers’ hands.
Baltimore is in striking distance, I suppose, but they’d have to win out, and the Steelers collapse. The Ravens play the Falcons, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Chargers, and Browns to close the year. I don’t see a lot of wins in there. Even the Browns are no longer an easy out (they beat the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium already, after all).
Meanwhile, the Bengals are in free-fall, and apparently seriously considering handing the reins over to Hugh Jackson, just as they put Andy Dalton on IR. And the Browns, who are surging, are too far back to pull ahead.
The division belongs to the Steelers.
2 – They lost this week, but they’re still a very clutch team.
The Steelers gutsy win in Jacksonville was their second "close" victory this year (close meaning six points or less). Their record in such games this season is 2-1-1. Last year they were 7-2 (with one of those losses being the referee-aided Jesse James game against New England). They’re battle tested in these types of games. That last play against Denver was a disaster, but is there any doubt that the Steelers were capable of pulling out a win there? Of course not. With one timeout and 3:45 to go, they stood 62 yards from the tying touchdown, with a 2nd and 16, and walked right down the field to the two yard line. It hurts that they lost, but this is a team that knows what it is capable of.
By contrast, the Baltimore Ravens went over 700 days between close victories. Their ugly 24-21 win over the Bengals last week was their first victory of less than six points since 2016. Nobody wins every time, but Steelers fans should have a confidence in this team (still) that other "strong" teams simply can’t match.
3 – There is still a decent shot at a first round playoff bye.
They probably need to go 4-1 down the stretch, which might be tough, but is hardly impossible. If they beat Oakland, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New England (big "if" on those last two), and lose to New Orleans – finishing 11-4-1 – then they have a very good shot at the 2-seed. For that matter, it’s not completely out of the question that the Chiefs will stumble once or twice and the 1-seed will be up for grabs. But at the very least, the 2-seed is certainly in the mix.
This is useful because the Steelers 2008 and 2010 Super Bowl trips both started with a 2-seed and a first-round bye.
4 – Their stars are still producing, even if they don’t always look like it.
Despite two mediocre games in a row, James Conner still leads in the AFC in rushing yards, rushing first downs, and rushing touchdowns.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown are dominating the receiving charts as well. Smith-Schuster currently leads the AFC with 77 receptions and is second in receiving yards and receiving first downs, with 1055 and 47, respectively. He’s also recorded the longest reception in football this year. AB, meanwhile sits at third in the conference in catches (though first in targets; JuJu is third), as well as 5th in yards, 7th in first downs, and tied for first in the NFL in receiving touchdowns. To have two guys in that rarified air in the same category is a really impressive thing. James Conner also clocks in at #13 in catches. Only two other teams (KC and Cincy) have two receivers in the conference’s top 20. The Steelers have three in the top 13.
Ben Roethlisberger has thrown a couple of interceptions the last two weekends, but he is also leading the AFC in completions, attempts, and passing yards, and sits at 4th in touchdowns, 5th in yards per attempt, and 7th in completion percentage and passer rating. And among QBs with 200 attempts this season (that’s 18/game – Ben has 472 so far), he’s been sacked the second fewest times. He’s getting sacked once every 32 pass plays (16 sacks, 472 passes, and 24 scrambles). Moreover, his 12 interceptions are second most in the conference, but because he’s attempting such a huge number of passes, his INT percentage is actually not terrible. 12 picks on 472 passes is 2.54%. As reference, media favorite and presumptive MVP (or at least OPOY) Patrick Mahomes has thrown 10 interceptions on 391 attempts, which comes out to 2.56%. Darkhorse MVP candidate Andrew Luck, meanwhile is hitting 2.52% (11 picks, 437 attempts). Eight game winning streak architect Deshaun Watson has thrown 9 interceptions on 333 attempts, which comes out to 2.70%.
5 – The playoff bye might not actually be crucial for these guys.
This year’s Steelers have come out a little sluggish after extra time off. In the opening weekend, they played an off-balance game against the Cleveland Browns, tying them in overtime after not playing the week before. After their week 8 bye, they played the Browns again, and while they won much more decisively this time, they scored zero points in the first quarter, recording three consecutive 3-and-outs to start the game, as the Browns ran up a 6-0 lead. Later, after the mini-bye, following the Thursday night blowout of Carolina, they bumbled through three quarters of junk-ball against Jacksonville, before finally getting their act together and winning the game.
In other words, it might be best to play through the thread, just like it was in 2005, when the Steelers needed to win eight weeks in a row to take home their fifth Lombardi.
6 – The Steelers are a sacking machine this year.
They aren’t getting turnovers (for no reason I can fathom) but it’s not for lack of quarterback pressure. They’re currently leading the league in sacks, with 39 (on pace for nearly 57, which would break their own team record).
Of note this season is that more individuals are accumulating impressive numbers than last year, when Cameron Heyward was the only Steeler above 8.0 on the year. T.J. Watt has 10.0 sacks already – the first Steeler linebacker with double digit sacks since James Harrison in 2012. But by the end of the year, there’s a very good chance that this team will have multiple 10+ sackers, from any of five or six different guys. At the current rate, Watt will finish with 15 sacks on the year (one extra burst in the last five weeks and he’ll break Harrison’s team record in only his second year in the league). But also, Javon Hargrave, despite very limited snaps, is on pace for 9.0 sacks on the season, as is Heyward. Meanwhile, Bud Dupree and Vince Williams are currently on pace for 7.0. A breakout game from any of those guys could push them over the 10 mark, or push the Steelers over 60 as a team.
As a sidenote, the Steelers current turnover differential is a dismal minus-7, but their current sack differential is a spectacular plus-23 (39 for the defense, 16 for the offense). If the current numbers hold, that ratio will be plus-33. Goodness.
7 – The Steelers upcoming opponents aren’t as tough as they might seem.
Oakland and Cincinnati are toast. Yes, any given Sunday and all that, but I’m not going waste my time considering those two.
The Chargers look tough, especially in blowing out Arizona this week, but let’s not forget that they also broke their six-game winning streak to the Broncos, just the week before the Steelers traveled to Denver. This is a talented team that is flawed. They will not be an easy out, but they will also not be unbeatable.
New England typically frightens Steeler fans, but they have been particularly unimpressive this year. For starters, they’ve been pushed around by mediocre clubs like Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Detroit. People want to excuse this because Detroit and Tennessee are coached by Bill Belichick alums, but former assistants or players don’t beat their mentors automatically, otherwise Hugh Jackson's Browns wouldn’t have gone 0-4 against the Bengals. (Or to put it in Bill Belichick terms, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brian, and Romeo Crennel would have posted better than a 3-10 record against the Pats as head coaches.) Getting stomped by an average score of 30-13 by three teams with a combined record of 12-21 is not an inspiring look for the defending AFC champs. This is not a world-beating team; it’s a team that struggled to get the upper hand against Josh McCown’s Jets in week 10, and that only led Derek Anderson’s Bills 12-6 in the fourth quarter a few weeks ago. There’s a lot of talk about the Steelers playing down to their competition; that’s what I see in New England this year. Will the Steelers beat them? Who knows. But anyone who writes off this game before it's played is living on reputation. There’s nothing about the Pats that suggests they’re a championship team this year.
I can’t help with the Saints. Sorry.
8 – Chris Boswell’s jitters appear to be over.
Boz’s blocked field goal against Denver was hardly his fault. Take that away and he’s on a 30 for 31 streak kicking. In fact, with the exception of that block, he hadn’t missed a field goal since September 24 at Tampa Bay. Plus, we now we know that he’s got a pro-grade right arm as well. (We also now know that Alejandro Villanueva ought to be on the receiving end of a lot more touchdowns. A guy that height and that width, with wide receiver hands, should get a few more looks before this season is over…)
9 – The Steelers’ hard schedule is a plus, if they can get through it.
The last time the Steelers had a spectacularly hard schedule was 2008, when they played eleven games(!) against teams that were .500 or better. Their record in those games was not perfect – they were 7-4 – but they were (a) used to high pressure games, and (b) sharpened by the iron on the other side of the field. They also got pushed all year by Baltimore, who would have won the division if the Steelers stumbled one more time. Given all this, it ought to be no surprise that they gutted out throat-punch victories against San Diego, Baltimore, and Arizona on their way to a Super Bowl win. They were used to the intensity of playoff games, where every mistake can cost you, and they honed their craft against the game’s best.
Gregg Easterbrook (Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s author) used to call these "authentic games" – that is, games against genuine contenders. He claimed that when playoff teams lined up, the winner was often predictable by looking at the number of authentic games they’d played. Not "won," mind you, but just "played." In other words, you don’t have to prove yourself in October, or even December. The key is to be battle tested. You have to be good enough to get to the playoffs (so you have to have won as many of those authentic games as possible), but it’s more crucial to show up in those games than to win them all.
An insanely hard schedule has been a highway to the Super Bowl for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers in the past. There’s no reason to assume it's a dead end this year.