The Pittsburgh Steelers are quietly picking up some momentum in the race for either the AFC’s final wild-card berth or the AFC North title itself, two races defined by mediocrity. Since losing their first four games of the 2013 season, Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have righted the ship and won four of the last six. They’re one game back in a packed race for the second wild-card, two back in the division and plenty of opportunities on the schedule in the final six weeks.
One thing that needs to be pointed out is that when saying the Steelers have gone 4-2 in the last six games, there is a legitimate reason for using that stretch of schedule as a cutoff point. Those are the six games that have taken place since the bye week, which they entered 0-4 and fresh off a bad loss to the Minnesota Vikings in London.
The point being that it’s legitimate to use the post-bye period as sort of a “second season”, and not just a case of creative manipulation of the record wherein analysts throw out the bad to make everything look better.
Pittsburgh’s 4-6 record puts them in a big mess of teams that are within a game of each other for the last wild-card and only two of these teams–the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins–are at 5-5. The Steelers have beaten the Jets and have a home game with the Dolphins ahead.
But the more immediate question is whether the Steelers can actually chase down the Cincinnati Bengals and win the AFC North. Cincy is 7-4, and still has to travel to Pittsburgh. When you consider the Bengals’ history–especially vis-a-vis the Steelers–for blowing opportunities, I can’t imagine anyone in Cincinnati relishes the Black-N-Gold breathing down their neck in December.
Furthermore, the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns are also at 4-6, and in the same races the Steelers are. Therefore, as we summarize the strengths and weaknesses of Coach Tomlin’s team, we’ll compare and contrast them to their divisional brethren.
*The positives start with Ben Roethlisberger. The veteran Steeler quarterback is playing as well as he ever has, given the problems around him. Big Ben is seventh in the NFL in completion percentage, and eight in yards-per-pass. This contrasts sharply with the poor play of Joe Flacco in Baltimore, the quarterback mess in Cleveland the fluctuating inconsistency of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.
*The big problem is that the positives pretty much end with Ben Roethlisberger. The Steeler offensive line is awful, ranking 30th in sacks allowed, making one wonder how bad it might be if not for a quarterback who’s so hard to bring down. The one saving grace here is that pass protection throughout the AFC North is hideous, so at least it’s not a comparative disadvantage.
The same goes for the running game–Pittsburgh’s is bad, but no one else is a whole lot better. It’s hard to believe that the division that once had Jerome Bettis and still has Ray Rice has become so soft in the trenches.
*Defensively is where Pittsburgh is getting beat. The Steelers overall defensive showing is a little below average (19th in points allowed), but the Bengals and Ravens each have Top 10 defensive units. The Steelers are by far the worst in the AFC North at stopping the run, the only team in the division that can be run over. They’re also the worst at pressuring the quarterback, while all three of their rivals do this well.
And while none of the AFC North teams have done a good job at winning the turnover battle, Pittsburgh has separated itself, with their (-8) ratio being the division’s worst. While Roethlisberger has thrown ten interceptions that ranks in the middle of the AFC. What’s killed the team is lost fumbles and the complete inability of the defense to create turnovers.
Is this really the Steelers? Every statistical measurement–as well as consensus personnel assessments– tell you they’re soft on both lines and can’t make a big play defensively. They needed their two young offensive lineman, David DeCastro and Mike Adams to step up. That hasn’t happened, and Adams hasn’t even made the starting lineup. The Week 1 injury to center Maurkice Pouncey was a fatal blow the line simply could not afford.
Defensively, Troy Polamulu is clearly showing his age at 32-years-old. By no means am I saying that Polamulu is done, but the days of him flying around the field, creating havoc and turnovers certainly are. He’s moving into a new role, of stabilizing veteran presence and the team has to adjust to that. What would help is if outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley can get himself healthy–he’s dealing with a bad calf, and start getting some sacks and forcing some bad passes.
Pittsburgh has both games with Cleveland still remaining, including this Sunday. The Steelers go to Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. They’ve got the aforementioned date with Miami and they host Cincinnati. That’s all the opportunities they need.
The down side is that there’s also a Week 16 trip to Green Bay, when Aaron Rodgers will be healthy again. If you assume the Steelers will lose that game, they almost certainly need to sweep the rest. If they do hit the inside straight and get to 9-7 via that route, you have to think they’re in the playoffs.
Those aren’t great odds–Las Vegas has Pittsburgh a 10-1 shot just to win the AFC North, a number they share with Baltimore, while Cincinnati is a heavy (-800) favorite. But turn the calendar back to when the Steelers flew out of London at 0-4 and they would have taken any odds at all. It hasn’t necessarily been pretty, but the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff chances are still in play.