If one were to estimate the odds of winning an NFL game by scoring no more than 16 points, the projection of victory would not be very high.
What about winning two games with such criteria— in a row? In primetime? With your playoff hopes literally clinging to your every play?
Somehow, some way, the Steelers accomplished that very feat, defeating the Raiders and Ravens in Weeks 16 and 17 by scoring a combined 29 points. For context, the Eagles and Lions have each compiled eight games scoring at least that number of points in only four quarters.
Via its current three-game win streak, Pittsburgh has improbably crawled its way to .500 and with a legitimate chance at the postseason. Tremendous credit must be given to Mike Tomlin and his staff for the adjustments made during the team’s Week 9 bye. Since the start of November, the Steelers have gone 6-2, ranking sixth in offensive EPA/play and ninth in defensive EPA/play.
At the same time, Pittsburgh’s unblemished recent stretch obscures several underlying issues.
Beginning with Matt Canada’s offense, the unit has moved the ball well, amassing at least 325 yards in all three contests, but has simply sputtered in enemy territory. In the last three weeks, the Steelers have gained 16 trips past the 50, but have put up a miserable five touchdowns. Some blame for poor scoring outputs can and should be attributed to the woes of kicker Chris Boswell, but the underlying point stands: due to self-inflicted miscues, Canada’s offense is simply not finding pay dirt frequently enough.
Likewise, Teryl Austin’s defense has hit its stride during late December and early January. The Steelers have permitted no more than 24 points in a game during this stretch and limited Carolina’s, Las Vegas’ and Baltimore’s offense to under 250 yards. The play of T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alex Highsmith, Larry Ogunjobi, Cam Sutton and even Robert Spillane has been standout.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been entirely perfect for Pittsburgh’s D. The team allowed 120 rushing yards to a J.K. Dobbins-powered Raven rushing attack, marking the second time the Steelers’ defense was outmatched against Baltimore’s run-blocking. Further, Austin had no answer regarding coverage of Mark Andrews, who posted nine catches for 100 yards.
And yet, in spite of the shortcomings outlined above — the inability of the Steelers to look like a sound football group in all three phases for 60 minutes — the team is 3-0, in large part due to clutch play.
Against the Raiders and Ravens, Pittsburgh’s offense and defense rose to the occasion with the clock winding down. The off-script playmaking from Kenny Pickett during the last two game-winning drives has been must-see television. Pickett’s ability to will a lifeless offense to six has erased much memory of the struggles in the prior 58 minutes. On the other end, Heyward, Fitzpatrick and others stifled offenses on third downs and in chances to tie.
Taking a step back underscores that the Steelers are much like their .500 record. Pittsburgh ranks 16th in Football Outsiders DVOA, 16th in cumulative offensive EPA/play and 24th in defensive EPA/play. To say the Steelers should not be this close to the playoffs based on their metrics is not an understatement.
Despite it all, Tomlin’s team — as it’s wont to do late in the year — has rallied just enough, come up with just the right number of answers to win games. No matter the level of competition, that element of a squad is one many around the NFL are still yet to find.
Whether or not the Steelers are dealt the hand they need to earn the AFC’s No. 7 seed, to even be on the cusp of a playoff berth in a rebuilding year of sorts is a major accomplishment. Though the team has major work ahead of it to reach a more sustainable and consistent level of play, there’s something to be said about rising up when the moment is dire. That very trait cannot only manifest itself for years, but also create enduring legacies, some of which (see: No. 8) have already started to form.