It was common knowledge coming into the 2021 NFL season that the Steelers were the not so lucky beneficiaries of the toughest schedule in the league this season, at least on paper. Problem is, games are not won or lost on paper. Injuries can alter the NFL landscape in a moment's notice.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most stable and consistently successful franchises in the NFL. Their stability was tested this past offseason more so than at any point in recent memory. Salary cap difficulties brought on by the pandemic, plus multiple retirements, lead to an uncharacteristic amount of roster turnover.
Therefore the Steelers have been forced to rely on an abnormal amount of rookie contributors and other new faces in new places. Now the Steelers sit alone in last place in the AFC North, another unfamiliar occurrence. Back to back victories heading into their Week 7 bye week have given the Steelers season a new lease on life.
With no more respite on the schedule, the Steelers have a very scant margin of error moving forward. Hopefully the Steelers utilized the bye week to refresh and renew their spirits, because the time to start finding their team chemistry is upon us, especially if they want to remain relevant in the division.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Quality of losses
The NFL season is far more a marathon than a sprint. The best response to each week's results is to not get too high, or too low. There were numerous wails and gnashing of teeth when the Steelers suffered a discouraging three game losing streak after starting the season with a surprising road victory over AFC contender Buffalo Bills.
The doomsdayers were out in full force, prophesying the imminent demise of the good guys in Black and Gold. How could any team seriously consider themselves contenders if they couldn't defeat the likes of the Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, and Green Bay Packers; with two of the defeats coming at Heinz Field? It was not only embarrassing and unacceptable, but most definitely a foreshadowing of things to come.
At the conclusion of Sunday's slate of games, the combined record of those three teams was 16-5. All three currently lead their divisions, and have defeated teams far healthier and therefore complete than the Steelers were at the time of their contests. Those three losses haven't disqualified the Steelers from contention, and they don't appear as disparaging now at second glance.
Neither have the three victories on the season destined the Steelers to be playoff bound. The Steelers road victory over a talented contender in the Buffalo Bills show what the team is capable of if they are relatively healthy. The Bills may have slightly overlooked the young but talented Steelers that particular afternoon.
The past two victories have came at Heinz Field against the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. The Broncos appear overrated, after failing to win another game after feasting on three cellar dwellers to begin the season undefeated. Their once formidable defense suddenly appears incapable of stopping the run.
The Seahawks came into Pittsburgh without their best player; QB Russell Wilson, and in possession of a league worst defense, and almost walked out victorious. They would have without the heroic efforts of T.J. Watt and company.
So the question remains, are the Steelers any good? The answer is anybody's guess. They could be, especially if all the youngsters continue their upward trends. If their luck holds out, and they get some players back, and they stay relatively healthy. It could happen, and hopefully it will, but that remains to be seen.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: AFC North schedule
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens have basically dominated the AFC North since it's inception. The only two franchises in the division with Lombardi Trophies in their trophy cases have regularly feasted on the other two teams in the division. Those days are long gone. Don't look now, but little brother is crashing your party.
The AFC North is currently the best and most competitive division in the NFL. All four teams currently have, or potentially could have, balance in all three phases of the game. That is the ultimate parity, and is a statement that can't be made about any other division.
The Cincinnati Bengals have to be considered the biggest surprise, seeing how they not only lead the division, but they are currently the number one seed in the AFC. Their Oline has improved drastically since last year, allowing Joe Burrows to fully utilize his impressive stable of skill position players. A few shrewd free agency signings has created a formidable defense. They have also had the good fortune of being easily the healthiest team in the division. Question is; how long will their luck hold out?
The Baltimore Ravens remind me of the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers; not as good as their current record suggests. They have been decimated by injuries, their offensive line is a shadow of it's former self, and the defense is currently a feast or famine unit. They have been able to pull out numerous come from behind victories, including the Miracle in Detroit thanks to the longest field goal in NFL history. The otherworldly talents of Lamar Jackson, and to a lesser degree Justin Tucker, seem to be winning games for the Ravens with smoke and mirrors. How long until all is revealed?
That brings us to the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers upcoming opponent on Halloween. The Browns have a loyal and rabid fanbase, even with their perennial loser status. That started to change a couple years back, and now they have an intriguing roster lead by a talented young HC in Kevin Stefanski. They have the best offensive line in the division, maybe in the entire NFL. All their offensive success is predicated by their line and dominant rushing attack. At their best, they control the line of scrimmage and time of possession, keeping their opportunistic defense fresh and aggressive. QB Baker Mayfield's health, and corresponding performance, remains the Browns biggest question mark.
One things for certain. Any team, or teams, that make the playoffs out of the AFC North will have been heat treated and battle tested by the best division in the NFL.