How The Pittsburgh Steelers Turned Their Season Around

The Pittsburgh Steelers were dead in the water on October 12, or at least they appeared to be. A 31-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns had dropped the Steelers to 3-3 and they seemed destined to miss the playoffs for a third straight year. Now, Pittsburgh is rolling at 10-5, they’ve clinched a playoff berth and will play on Sunday Night at home against the Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC North title. What caused the turnaround?

We can give you some easy answers—Mike Tomlin is an exceptional head coach who knows how to deal with adversity and never lets his team quit. The Steeler organization is a model of stability and provides a good structure for a team that’s been knocked down to get back up. Ben Roethlisberger has delivered the season of his life at quarterback. Antonio Brown has become perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFL.

All of those things are true, but there’s one very important factor not to overlook—the Steeler offensive line has come together after a couple years of mediocrity and become a genuinely sound unit.

The website grades film of every NFL game and with a subscription you can review grades of every player in every game. The PFF reports confirm how much better the Pittsburgh offensive front is. Maurkice Pouncey continues to be steady at center, and we saw young right guard David DeCastro, a product of those physical offensive lines at Stanford, begin to come into his own this year. Marcus Gilbert was solid at right tackle.

But no offensive lineman in Pittsburgh was better, according to the graders at PFF, then left tackle Kelvin Beachum. He was off the charts with his play, particularly in pass protection. The strong pass blocking across the board, but particularly on Roethlisberger’s blind side, freed the quarterback up to deliver his spectacular year.

Here’s a few basic numbers for you about the Steeler passing game—they ranked third in the NFL in completion percentage. They were tied for second in yards-per-attempt. They were fourth at protecting the ball and avoiding interceptions. When you complete a lot of passes, while still throwing down the field and not making mistakes that would seem a pretty good formula to score a lot of points. And it’s why the Steeler offense ultimately ranked seventh in the NFL in points scored.

Pittsburgh needed all those points, because they aren’t very good defensively. They rank 19th in points allowed, and are lower in all those passing categories we just mentioned above. They’ve been able to play just well enough to win, thanks to good years in the front seven from Cameron Heyward, Jason Worldis, Lawrence Timmons, and veteran retread James Harrison.

The Steelers didn’t make it easy on themselves. That 3-3 start included a loss to Tampa Bay. Even the 7-2 run since has losses to the Jets and Saints mixed in. Pittsburgh has covered for that by winning a series of big games.

They beat the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens in consecutive national TV games when Roethlisberger threw twelve touchdown passes against zero interceptions, and Brown carved up opposing secondaries. Pittsburgh won a Monday Night game over a tough Houston Texans team by playing opportunistic defense and getting turnovers.

And over the last three weeks, the Steelers have beaten the Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs, playoff contenders all (yes, I use that loosely with the Falcons), and each win came about in a different way. Le’Veon Bell ran over the Bengals for 185 yards and Pittsburgh turned a 21-17 fourth quarter deficit into a 42-21 win. Roethlisberger outgunned Matt Ryan in the 27-20 win in Atlanta. And a strong defensive showing completed the return to the playoffs in Sunday’s 20-12 home win over the Chiefs.

The problems with the defense make it problematic to project a deep playoff run for the Steelers. But it’s possible, and that’s something that didn’t seem real likely in mid-October.