There’s this scene in I Think You Should Leave whereupon completing a job interview, Tim Robinson’s character attempts to exit a café by pulling a door that needs to be pushed. The interviewer points this out, but rather than owning and laughing off this banal misstep, Robinson insists the door actually opens both ways and proceeds to spend the next 45 seconds straining to pull the handle until the hinges warp and the door frame splinters, all without breaking eye contact. The door finally gives way. “See?” Robinson exclaims as he exits the busted doorway. That scene summarizes what it’s been like to watch the Steelers this season.
The primary benefactors of the Steelers 6-3 record are Lisinopril manufacturers and Western Pennsylvania cardiologists. All six of the Steelers’ wins have come in one-possession games; all three losses have been by multiple possessions. Last week against the Packers, the defense needed a pair of red-zone interceptions in crunch time to seal the win; the week before that, it was a Kwon Alexander interception in the end-zone to halt a Titans comeback. The Steelers are nearly four touchdowns in the red in points differential this season, they rank near the bottom of the league is nearly every offensive category, and the highest praise one can offer the starting quarterback is that he’s not turning the ball over a lot.
In an era where many successful teams are achieving success by disrupting established paradigms (the Chiefs and Eagles spring to mind as foremost examples), the Steelers are maintaining a steadfast adherence to the basest offensive conventions. And yet, they are one game out of first place in the best division in football.
There aren’t many statistics that adequately quantify how the Steelers’ record defies the expectations one could parse from reviewing the stat sheet, but one that stands out is turnover differential, in which the Steelers rank best in the league. Last season, 11 of the 14 playoff entrants had plus turnover differentials, and on a more micro scale, the team that has the better turnover margin in a single game wins roughly 70% of the time. Suggesting that limiting turnovers precipitates better outcomes isn’t particularly groundbreaking intel, but the fact that the Steelers have a +10-turnover differential over the course of nine games is more of a trend than a freak occurrence. Even if you want to chalk something like fumble recoveries up as results of random chance, the Steelers have the second-fewest turnovers in the league; that level of care is certainly something that can be maintained, even if the frequency of takeaways cannot.
This all begs to question: does this—the lethargic offense, the dicey quarterback play, the heavy reliance on the defense—comprise a sustainable winning formula? The analytics and weekly eye-tests likely skew no, but it isn’t like the Steelers are the first team to achieve success by running a conservative offense and relying on the defense to hold up its end of the bargain. The Steelers have often felt like a team without an identity, but maybe being the team that doesn’t beat itself is their identity.