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The clock is striking midnight on the Steelers’ Cinderella season

Looking at the turning points of the Steelers 2019 playoff run.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers were left for dead after Ben Roethlisberger went down in Week 2 of the season. With an 0-2 record and Mason Rudolph at QB there wasn’t much in the way of hope. And at 1-3 with only a win over hapless Cincinnati, no one had changed their tune.

But then something happened. The Steelers stopped facing top teams in the NFL, and starting rolling off wins. After week 10 the Steelers had 4 losses, all to teams that have a combined record of 48-12 and have all clinched playoff berths, and either 2 or 3 of the 4 first round byes. Furthermore, while they were 5-3 after week one, they were +42 in score differential after that awful loss to New England to start the season.

At that point in the season the Steelers were on fire and heading into a tough playoff race, turning a team everyone had left for dead into a Cinderella story run at a playoff berth, and looking dangerous to the entire league. After all, Baltimore, Seattle and San Francisco were rolling through the season and had beaten the Steelers by a combined 9 points, with Baltimore taking overtime to pull out a win.

And then Cleveland happened. The ugly stepsister of the rag-tag Steelers, with all the Glitz and Glamour, the prized free agents and pre-season Super Bowl hype, the team that analysts refused to give up on no matter how dysfunctional their team, no matter who they lost to. They came to town and didn’t just beat the Steelers, they injured the Steelers, and added insult to those injuries by claiming Pittsburgh started it.

Week 11 marked a turning point in the Steelers season, a downturn that has been heartbreaking and even puzzling. A tough win against the Cincinnati team the Steelers had blown out earlier in the season and a revenge game against the Browns kept the team in the drivers seat of the final playoff spot, but the writing was on the wall, a loss to Buffalo and a heartbreaking, soul searching loss to the New York Jets have the Steelers outside the playoffs looking in, needing to beat the Ravens and help from the Texans if they are going to make it to the ball.

Beating the Ravens won’t be easy. They aren’t the same team they were the first time these teams met, and the Steelers aren’t either.

Check out these stats since week 11:

The best offense in the NFL vs. the worst offense in the NFL. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, since week 11 the Steelers have looked like the worst offense in the NFL and the Ravens are still the best. That isn’t much different than the first time the teams faced off, the Steelers offense was terrible, the Ravens was the best in the NFL, and that was balanced by the Steelers defense being one of the best and the Ravens being one of the worst.

But look at the defensive numbers since week 11 for the Steelers and Ravens:

The Ravens aren’t one of the worst defenses in the NFL anymore, and they have faced a tougher schedule than the Steelers in these weeks. So what gives? Why are the Ravens suddenly looking like a comparable or even better defensive team than the Steelers?

That has a lot to do with the offenses of each team. The Ravens start their average defensive drive with an 11 point lead. That’s a big bonus to their defense, because when you have the best offense in the NFL and a two score lead you don’t have to defend the run, and the Ravens haven’t. They have faced the fewest rushing attempts of any team this season, and yet are giving up 4.4 yards a carry when teams do run.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are giving up 3.7 yards per run in 2019, third best in the NFL and have faced 100 more rushing attempts than the Ravens have. The Ravens have given up 11 rushing TDs to the Steelers 6 and it doesn’t matter. You can run all day on the Ravens, but when you are down two scores to the #1 offense in the NFL, all you are doing is running the out the time you have to try and make a comeback.

As for the Steelers, they haven’t gotten worse as a defense, teams have just gotten more cautious and conservative against them.

The best way to show that is Minkah Fitzpatrick’s stats.

The Steelers remain one of the best deep ball defending teams in the NFL, and yet Minkah’s statistical impact in the game has almost entirely disappeared. That’s not surprising if you watch the film. Opposing teams aren’t testing Minkah Fitzpatrick, they aren’t throwing at him, or even near him. And they don’t have to. The Steelers average score margin at the start of a defensive drive, since week 11, is -1.6. They start drives trailing, and the other team knows that if it can just keep from giving up a big play and get a good punt off, the Steelers offense isn’t a real threat to any defense in the NFL right now, and they can win the game off Steeler offensive mistakes.

Le’Veon Bell ran the ball 21 times for 87 yards (4.14 ypc) against the Ravens, and it helped his team score 21 points. The Jets lost that game by 21 points.

Le’Veon Bell ran the ball 25 times for 72 yards (2.88 ypc) against the Steelers, and it helped his team score 16 points. The Jets won that game by 6 points.

Midnight is striking. It started the minute teams realized that all their offense had to do was “not kill them” against the Steelers, and they would have a real chance to win even if their team name was the Bengals and Ryan Finley was their starting QB. The defense can’t force teams to abandon the run or force throws near Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers now lead the NFL in sack rate, because teams have learned not to force throws against this defense, you can take a sack, punt the ball and come out ahead for it. What you can’t do, is be aggressive or force things, because this defense will make you pay for it.

It’s possible Baltimore will rest enough starters that the Steelers offense will score and the defense will have the chance to pull out a miraculous win. It’s possible that a Texans team that has clinched the division title will play hard enough to beat the Titans and propel the Steelers into the playoffs with a miraculous Week 17. But it’s more likely that the Steelers season ends with the kind of disappointment a Mike Tomlin team gives you at it’s worst. A non-losing season with a feeling that there could have, and should have, been more.