So, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in a weird spot. They’re 12-3, having already guaranteed a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs, which renders their Week 17 game against the 0-15 Cleveland Browns meaningless. This is surely an unequivocal benefit to the Steelers, as it effectively permits them two weeks of R&R before playing whoever in the Divisional Round. But here’s the rub: Pittsburgh does have something to play for in Week 17.
See, there is an inherent fatalism to approaching late-season game-prep so blithely. A win against the Browns and a Patriots loss to the Jets would give the Steelers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, placing the seemingly-inevitable Steelers-Patriots redux in Heinz Field and (ostensibly) giving Pittsburgh the edge they need to make a Super Bowl run. Of course, hoping that the Jets, who have one of the worst rosters in the NFL, go on the road and upset Tom Brady and the Patriots—who, in addition to trying to fend off the Steelers for the AFC’s top seed, are also presumably hoping to bolster Brady’s MVP case with some late-season stat-padding—is a tall order.
But that will all get sorted out sometime this week. If Monday’s game against the Texans was the last time we would see most of Pittsburgh’s starters until the second round of the playoffs, they certainly put on a good show. Let’s check the particulars:
The secondary: Stock up
It’s important to make note of the fact that the Steelers faced Houston’s third- and fourth-string quarterbacks on Christmas Day, so anything referenced with respect to the secondary hereafter should probably be taken with a grain of salt. With that said, the Steelers held Houston’s passing attack to just 51 net yards, intercepting one misfired pass and empowering the front seven to fly around the offensive backfield like a pack of rabid beasts. It is unfortunate that some fortuitous scheduling is going to prevent the world from witnessing Joe Haden’s abilities firsthand, because I am convinced that this dude is the lynchpin that holds the whole operation together. Aside from a 40-yard bomb and an absolutely goofy touchdown grab, Haden kept All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins in check, with is a distinction few defensive backs in this league can claim. There is no doubt that the Steelers are a better football team with Joe Haden in the lineup.
The same can be said about Mike Hilton, who collected three sacks against the Texans. Being that Hilton runs a handful of cornerback blitzes every game, this wasn’t a particularly surprising development; nevertheless, a three-sack game is worth a raised eyebrow, especially when the man responsible plays defensive back.
Artie Burns, meanwhile, grabbed his first interception of the season, while Sean Davis remained mostly anonymous, but in a good way. Davis and Burns had both been on the receiving end of some well-deserved criticism based on their recent play, so Monday hopefully served as somewhat of a confidence-building turnaround heading into the postseason.
The run-stoppers: Stock down
The Texans ran for nearly 180 yards on 28 carries, which is discouraging for several reasons. It isn’t like Houston was going to put their eggs in the T.J. Yates basket, so a run-heavy offense shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue are a serviceable backfield duo, but Houston’s rushing attack doesn’t measure up to Kansas City, it doesn’t measure up to Baltimore, and it most certainly doesn’t measure up to Jacksonville. Then again, the Steelers did win 34-6 and the “6” was the result of DeAndre Hopkins bending time and space at his will, so maybe we’re nitpicking.
The afterthought: Stock up
It’s such a Pittsburgh thing to complain about Pro Bowl snubs after sending eight players to the big show, but the issues concerning Cameron Heyward’s absence from this game are valid. Heyward collected another pair of sacks against Houston, pushing his season total to 12. The argument against stud 3-4 defensive ends garnering widespread recognition is that they rarely generate particularly noteworthy stat totals. The “football people” will manage to see through the accolades and understand the the unseen significance of what a particular end does on the field—a 3-4 defensive end could pick up like 7 sacks and then earn, like, a 91 overall in next year’s iteration of Madden. But Heyward has a dozen sacks for a defense that is, statistically, among the stronger units in the NFL. Yes, the Pro Bowl is kind of a whole watered-down, wholly arbitrary thing, but Heyward deserves to be recognized as such.
The centerpiece: Stock up
With Antonio Brown out of the lineup, the Steelers leaned on their other Hall of Fame caliber offensive superstar. What an unspeakable luxury.
Le’Veon Bell amassed 97 all-purpose yards and a touchdown on 19 offensive touches. The latter figure actually represents a pretty substantial drop-off in usage for Bell, as he eclipsed the 400-yard touch mark for the season with Monday’s effort. Any concerns about Bell’s “durability” have essentially been rendered meaningless, and so, too, have the musings regarding his conditioning after his self-imposed holdout during the preseason. Furthermore, Bell’s 85 catches this season really reinforce the whole pay me like a number two receiver aspect of his contract proposal, as he currently ranks seventh in the NFL in catches. He is going to make so, so much money this offseason.
The redux: Stock up
James Harrison is a Patriot. I realize this is probably a pretty divisive talking point, but here is a hot take: James Harrison owes the Steelers nothing, so the narratives about him being a “traitor” or whatever for signing with New England are insane. This is a man whose remaining games can almost certainly be counted on one hand, so it makes sense for him to chase another Super Bowl with a team that promised to carve out a more defined role for him in its defense. To be upset with Harrison for signing with New England would be akin to screaming at some teenager who was fired from McDonald’s for taking a job at Chick Fil A. Also,
With that said, Harrison’s arrival in New England imbues the potential Steelers-Patriots playoff matchup with tangible intrigue, even more so than it did a week ago. Should that game ultimately happen, I imagine it will end with plenty of hugs and handshakes between Harrison and his former coaches and teammates.
The Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
If there was an in-season Comeback Player of the Year award, I suspect that Ben would win this honor by a mile. After a disastrous start to the season, Roethlisberger is now playing much like we expected he’d play. He is, as of now, the second-best quarterback in the NFL, and he’s in the midst of one of the most productive seasons of his career. We’ll set the retirement index for this week at 1.