Yes, I know. I can hear a lot of you groaning through the screen as you read another pessimistic piece by fun-crushing Jarrett Bailey who can’t let you enjoy a win- my apologies.
I’ve been saying for the last few weeks that the Steelers’ very repetitive, very predictable, very vanilla style of winning puts a very hard ceiling on how far they can go. This past Thursday, they once again repeated their formula- struggle offensively for three quarters, have two drives where they look like a competent offense, rely on the defense to hold the opponent to fewer than 20 points, and take the lead in the fourth quarter. Everyone cheers as Pittsburgh is 5-3 and currently hold the No. 5 slot in the AFC playoff picture.
“A win is a win” they will say. Well, sure. However, is no one alarmed that they had to come back against a Titans team who has been largely miserable this season and was starting a rookie quarterback making his first road start? Isn’t it even more concerning that said quarterback looked better in his first two games than Kenny Pickett has ever looked?
And we can all joke and laugh about the Steelers being two games above .500 despite being outgained by 700 yards and sporting a point differential of -30, but the fact of the matter is that this is going to catch up with them. They play the Packers in Week 10. I can tell you right now how that game will go- they’ll stink offensively for the first half, the defense will have at least one takeaway that leads to a three-and-out, it’ll be 6-0 Steelers at halftime, the Packers will score and lead 7-6 going into the fourth quarter, and the Steelers will score to win 13-7. They’ll be 6-3, and maybe the worst 6-3 team of all time, and as long as they can win four of their last eight games, they’ll be a playoff team.
But what then? They go to Buffalo, or to Miami, or to Jacksonville, or to Kansas City? Perhaps a third matchup with the Bengals or Ravens? Baltimore is the only matchup of those games where Steelers fans should feel good because Pittsburgh is a bad matchup for the Ravens and Lamar Jackson has yet to have a good game against the Steelers in his career. The rest, though? They’re getting boat raced. Since Week 6, the Bills and Bengals are the top two offenses in the league in terms of success rate. Baltimore is third, and the Chiefs are sixth. All of those teams are also in the top 10 in EPA/dropback in that span- the Steelers are 21st. For the season, the Steelers are 26th in EPA/play, Kenny Pickett is 27th in success rate and 28th in completion percentage over expected.
And for all the fans infatuated with fourth-quarter comebacks- Zach Wilson just had one against the Giants where he completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Tim Tebow led the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks in 2011, and the Broncos immediately moved him to the Jets so they could sign Peyton Manning because they knew he wasn’t good and they weren’t getting to a Super Bowl with him.
The Steelers are winning via comeback against teams they shouldn’t be trailing to in the first place. They shouldn’t have to overcome a quarterback in his second career start. They shouldn’t be awful on offense, save for a drive or two drives if they are lucky. The sad truth is that this is the only way the Steelers can win. Since the start of 2022, they are 13-4 when teams score 20 or fewer points- they are 1-7 when teams score 21 or more. That one win was in Week 2 of this season when the Steelers’ defense outscored their offense. They have won just two games by multiple scores with Kenny Pickett- they have lost five games by multiple scores with Pickett.
People can point fingers at the defense for giving up more splash plays in the secondary than usual or being 30th in yards surrendered, and those are fair criticisms. However, they are also on the field much more than the average defense because of the lackluster offense. Despite that, they are only surrendering 20 points per game. Those numbers are also skewed because of the losses to the 49ers and Texans. And yes, the defense was bad in those games, but the offense scored a combined 13 points in those two losses. The defense is still in the upper echelon of units in terms of EPA/play, and the Steelers lead the league in turnover differential, yet at the bottom of the league in scoring. What’s that tell you? Their defense is giving them the ball, and they are doing nothing with it.
And again, I know it sounds like I’m trying to rain on the parade of fans- I’m not. But there are certainly fans who think this team can grind out wins like this against elite teams, and the numbers say that’s just not going to happen. There’s nothing wrong with believing, or being hopeful as a fan, I get it. I’m a fan more than anything at the end of the day. However, I’m also a realist. And the reality is that the Steelers don’t have the offensive coordinator, the offensive line, or the quarterback to be considered anything more than Wildcard contenders who will get their brakes blown off the second they face an elite team with an elite offense.
If they were smart, they’d address that when all is said and done and upgrade at quarterback, but we all know that won’t happen, no matter what side of the debate you’re on. Pickett will be here next year as the guy, it will be a rinse and repeat season where they will be an eight or nine win team in contention for the No. 7 seed, and they’ll pat themselves on the back for another season over .500 as if it means anything in the grand scheme of things. As long as that continues to be “The Standard,” this team will be mediocre for the foreseeable future.