Before I start, I acknowledge that after MNF it’ll only be Week 9 in the NFL. But with that said, it’s hard not to be impressed with the 7-0 Pittsburgh Steelers. Sure, they didn’t dominate bad teams like the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, or Houston Texans. But that’s not who this Steelers team needs to be. Being able to win one-possession games is a benefit that can’t be undersold in the NFL.
Look at the Los Angeles Chargers a year ago for example. In one-score games, they had a 2-9 record which sunk their overall record to 5-11. Although some will say luck has a lot to do with these kinds of games, I’d counter that luck isn’t the only factor. Being able to get a key stop or takeaway on defense, having good coaching, and being able to convert on third down truly make a team great and help them win those games. This team has all of those skills and a favorable upcoming schedule. With the stage now set, here’s the Steelers road to the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers Road To The Playoffs
How They’ve Gotten To 7-0
As I said earlier, the Steelers defeated the Giants, Broncos, and Texans in the first three weeks. In the Giants game, the Steelers showed their elite run defense off against Saquon Barkley (15 rushes for six yards). Their run defense also shut down Kareem Hunt (13 carries for 40 yards) and kept Derrick Henry in check (20 carries for 75 yards and a touchdown). Although the Baltimore Ravens had a field day running the ball in week eight, the Steelers defense should rebound and continue their run-stopping ways. Before the Ravens game, they were second in run defense, and now they’re fifth.
But the run defense isn’t alone as the pass defense is performing well too. The Steelers only allow 213.9 passing yards per game, which is seventh-best. Also, Opposing quarterbacks only complete 57 percent of their passes against Pittsburgh. The credit goes to both the front seven, and secondary. The front seven has lived up to last year’s expectations so far with a stunning 4.3 sacks per game. The star duo of T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt has been outstanding. In fact, Watt is best in the league in pass rush win rate (27 percent).
And, the secondary has played their part, especially the cornerbacks. Both Steven Nelson and Joe Haden are having quiet but good seasons. They don’t make many mistakes, even if their speed and athleticism aren’t elite anymore. As a unit, the Steelers feast on turnovers as much as anyone. Their four forced turnovers on Lamar Jackson were what won them the Ravens game. Whether it be causing fumbles or interceptions, the defense will be the catalyst on the road to the playoffs.
A Look At The Upcoming Schedule
Much like how the schedule was weeks one through three, the schedule looks favorable for the next three games. In the next three weeks, the Steelers will face the Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, and Jacksonville Jaguars. The combined records of these teams? 5-17-1. Although these games shouldn’t be taken lightly by the coaching staff, the common theme is all three have bottom feeder defenses.
The Cowboys and Jaguars specifically give up the most points in the league. This will give the offense three weeks to build more chemistry before having to face the Ravens again on Thanksgiving. The Steelers may be 10-0 entering Thanksgiving as long as they don’t underestimate anyone, especially the Bengals who’ve been competitive all year.
After Thanksgiving, the road to the playoffs heats up in the final four weeks. First, they’ll have a tuneup against the 2-5 Washington Football Team. But then they have to face the Buffalo Bills on the road, which could be troublesome. The Bills are very similar to the Ravens in the way of their running quarterback, Josh Allen. But the Bills have more weapons than the Ravens and are a real title threat if their defense can play like the 2019 version.
Then they face the Bengals again, before finishing with the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns. Both of these games should be intense and high stakes. The Colts defense is superb in every category, and the Browns could be fighting for a playoff birth in Week 17. The Steelers got the second-easiest schedule this year and have taken advantage of it so far and will continue to do so.
What Can Be Improved On Defense?
So far, we’ve talked about the strengths of the Steelers, and what teams are in their future. But there’s always something an NFL team can find to do better at. If there was any point this season that caused Steelers fans to hold their breath, it was when Devin Bush tore his ACL in Week 5. Bush had been coming into his own as a leader and good coverage linebacker before the injury.
Although his replacement, Robert Spillane, played well against the Ravens, another body is needed. But the Steelers knew this and traded for New York Jets inside linebacker Avery Williamson Sunday night. Williamson will fit in nicely as a run defender who doesn’t miss many tackles. He’s set to become a free agent after this season too, so he could be in for a big second half of the season as he looks to get paid again.
What Can Be Improved On Offense?
For as incredible as this team is on defense, the offense has taken a back seat. Ben Roethlisberger has provided the stability at quarterback that was desperately lacking a year ago. His 15 to four touchdown-interception ratio is impressive, and he’s completing 67.9 percent of his attempts. But it’s a different Roethlisberger than before the elbow injury.
In 2020, the gameplan for Big Ben is to get the ball out quickly and let the receivers make plays happen. According to next-gen stats, Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball quicker than any other quarterback. The offense doesn’t take many deep shots and is based on short routes. This is all a big change from the 2018 Steelers who threw for over 5,000 yards. Instead, they rank 22nd in pass yards. But despite the numbers not being eye-popping, the talent at wide receiver is there.
JuJu Smith-Schuster has led the team in catches the last two weeks and should be able to build on that. Chase Claypool has been sensational at times and has a very bright ceiling. And Eric Ebron has been the most reliable pass-catching tight end the Steelers have been missing since Heath Miller. Not to mention Diontae Johnson can be electric if he’s healthy, and the offensive line has been a strength all year.
The room for growth on the offense is there, and it’ll be interesting to see if Roethlisberger starts throwing the ball deeper as the road to the playoffs intensifies. It should be noted the Steelers offense is third-best on third-down conversion in the league. And it helps that James Conner has already eclipsed his yardage total from last year and the ground game is more balanced as a whole.
The Road To The Playoffs Will Be A Competitive One
As you can see, the Steelers have had as good a start to the season as they could’ve hoped. They’ve lived up to my prediction in the offseason: the defense would carry the day while the offense caught up. Now that the second half of the season is here, coaches will have to adjust and make sure they’re keeping on top of their teams. The second half of the year will have a lot of fun games against the Bills, Colts, and division rivals. The AFC North is arguably the best division in football outside of the NFC West. And the race for the AFC North won’t be easy as everyone will be trying to play spoiler to the Steelers. It’ll be a competitive AFC North race, as well as for who will get the first seed and that coveted first-round bye.
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