What was it head coach Mike Tomlin said shortly after the Steelers 31-28 loss to the Saints that left them at 8-6-1 and in need of some serious help in-order to qualify for the playoffs? Something to the effect of, “We’ve had 15 opportunities to state our case.”
Make that 16 opportunities and a 9-6-1 record, thanks to Pittsburgh’s rather ugly 16-13 season-ending victory over an injury-depleted Bengals team at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Yes, it was a season-ending win, thanks to the Browns coming up just short against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore is the champion of the AFC North, while the Steelers and their fans are now left to ponder what could have been if just a few plays had gone the other way over the course of the season.
But that’s the case for most teams in the NFL. To quote another coach, former Bengals and Buccaneers head coach Sam Wyche, who has also been a network analyst: “When you watch film of all 32 teams prior to each season, you can pick out the ones that will win 12 or 13 games and the ones that will lose 12 or 13 games. As for the other two-dozen or so? They’re all a few plays over the course of a season from finishing anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6.”
That certainly sums up the Steelers 2018 campaign and what they—and their fans—would be preparing for today had only a few plays—heck, just ONE play—gone in a positive direction over the course of the just-completed 16-game regular season.
But that’s life in the NFL, and it’s true for all but the truly elite teams—and I’m not so sure there are any elite teams in professional football at this very moment, even as 12 other fan bases are dreaming of a magical postseason run.
The talent that the Steelers possess is nice, but it’s just that, nice. It’s not elite. It can’t be if one side of the football is almost completely devoid of All Pro players.
Yes, the offensive side of the ball is special, but the defense is made up of youngsters who were mostly drafted in the 20s. It’s hard to find Jalen Ramsey in the 20s. It’s hard to find J.J. Watt in the 20s. The Steelers found Ryan Shazier in the teens, and they built their defense around him and asked him to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, he suffered a life-altering and likely career-ending injury. Now the Steelers defense is left without a transformative component, a game-changer, the kind of player who can almost single-handedly win you a playoff game (wildcard victory over the Bengals in January of 2016).
You can find a David DeCastro in the 20s. For that matter, you can find a Le’Veon Bell or a JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round. Why? It’s not because they’re not special players. There just isn’t quite the premium for those guys early in the first round. Why? When teams aren’t drafting players like Ben Roethlisberger early in the first round, they’re drafting the guys who are best equipped to stop them. To hammer the earlier point home, those guys—the elite defenders—aren’t likely to be found in the 20s.
And that’s the ironic part. The Steelers have just enough special components on offense—especially the main component—to never be really bad. And if they’re never really bad, they’ll likely never wind up with enough special components on the defense to put it on the same level as the franchise quarterback-led offense.
What you’re left with is a team that is good enough to contend for a title (“This team is capable of beating anyone in the NFL.”), but also deficient in just enough areas to not be truly elite—just like the vast majority of the league.
And when that is the case, a few plays here or there over the course of a season can make or break you.
The Steelers came out on the positive end the majority of the time in 2017, hence the 13-3 record. In 2018, they simply did not.
Same team, vastly different results.
The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t a team that underachieved. They were a team that wasn’t good enough to overcome its deficiencies.
Will they be better in 2019? I guess it all depends on what they do with those few key plays.