Updated: Nov 15, 2020
(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The Steelers are the lone unbeaten team in the league at 8-0, which is the best start to a season in franchise history. It's kind of hard to believe that it's a franchise record when you think about all the great teams that the organization has had since its founding in 1933.
All six of the Steelers' Super Bowl champion teams can't say they started a season 8-0, so why does it feel like this team is being overlooked and not getting enough praise from the national media?
It's probably because the Steelers are winning ugly. But hey, winning isn't easy in the National Football League and the other teams are professionals too.
The narrative as to whether the Steelers are "for real or not" stems from them almost losing to the then-2-6 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday who was starting their fourth-string quarterback in Garrett Gilbert. The Steelers were 14.5-point favorites against Dallas and it was expected that they'd just annihilate the Cowboys.
It didn't turn out that way, as the Steelers started off slow and lethargic for the second consecutive week. They had to rely on Ben Roethlisberger and the no-huddle five-wide empty set (like in Baltimore) to score 15 points in the fourth quarter and come back to beat the hapless Cowboys, 24-19.
Minkah Fitzpatrick also had a pass breakup in the end zone on the final play of the game to preserve a win, just like in Baltimore the week prior. The Steelers have come back from 10-point, second-half deficits in each of the last two weeks. Pittsburgh has not done that in back-to-back games on the road since Week 11 and 12 of the 1953 season, according to Michael Bertsch, who is the communications manager for the Steelers.
So, the Steelers have been living on the edge when it comes to winning. But the NFL is all about parity. The NFL doesn't want to see blowouts. They want every game to go down to the wire. For example, the Chiefs beat the then-3-5 Carolina Panthers by just two points, 33-31.
But you hear hardly anything about the Chiefs playing down to their competition by the national media pundits. I get it, the Chiefs played a better quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, but that's still a two-point win against a below-average Panthers team.
I also get it that the Chiefs are the defending Super Bowl champions and are more flashy than the Steelers with a high-powered offense that is orchestrated by Super Bowl MVP and the face of the league, Patrick Mahomes, who's having another incredible season with a 25-1 touchdown-interception ratio and a quarterback rating of 115.9.
The Chiefs have lost once this year and that came in Week 5 to the Las Vegas Raiders. Kansas City has a good chance to win the rest of their games, but they do play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 12 and the New Orleans Saints in Week 15, both of those games are on the road.
If you want to give the Chiefs the edge over the Steelers right now, fine. They are the defending Super Bowl champions and are a very talented team. But I don't think the margin between the Chiefs and the Steelers is by much. I can easily see these two teams meeting in the AFC Championship Game.
Yeah, the Steelers have won some ugly games and should have taken care of the Cowboys in a more decisive manner, but they shouldn't be overlooked. Their biggest problem right now is they're playing halves well and not a complete 60 minutes of football. Just wait until they hit their stride and start playing complete games.
Roethlisberger has played well this season and has done a nice job distributing the ball to the skill players -- Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Eric Ebron all have at least three touchdown receptions. Chase Claypool leads the team with five touchdown receptions and JuJu Smith-Schuster ranks second with four touchdowns.
The best attribute to Roethlisberger's game this season is that he's not turning the ball over. Roethlisberger has a touchdown-interception ratio of 18-4, with three of those interceptions coming against the Titans in Week 7.
He is on pace to throw a career-high 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions, which would be his lowest amount since 2012 when he played just 13 games.
However, Roethlisberger needs to improve on his deep ball in the second half of the season, as through eight games, he completed just 11 of 35 passes of 20 or more yards downfield for 357 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Steelers also rank 25th in total yards per game (341.0) and are 21st in passing yards per game (232.0). They rank fifth in points though, averaging 29.4 points per game.
They also need to get the run game and James Conner going. They started off well averaging 136.8 rushing yards per game, which ranked 11th in the league from Week 1-6. But from Week 7 to now, they have averaged 62.7 yards rushing per game, which ranks 30th in the league. Conner rushed for 22 yards on nine carries (2.4 average) against the Cowboys on Sunday, who came into the game having the worst-ranked run defense, allowing 170.8 yards per game.
As a team, the Steelers rushed for just 46 yards on 22 attempts, an average of 2.6 yards per carry. It wasn't all on the running backs against Dallas though, as the offensive line has to play better as well.
The offensive line couldn't get movement and create a hole for the running back for the first down on four occasions in short-yardage situations against the Cowboys, resulting in a turnover on downs twice. The offensive line has allowed just 10 sacks this season, which is tied for the second-fewest in the league, but they need to do a better job in the run blocking department.
The Steelers' defense is one of the best in the league, and I don't think it's arguable that they have the best front-seven in the NFL. Especially when it comes to getting after the quarterback. The Steelers lead the league in sacks with 32 through eight games and rank No. 1 in pressure rate at 36.1%, according to Pro Football Reference.
The constant pressure on the quarterback has also helped in creating turnovers. The Steelers rank second in takeaways with 15 and have 11 interceptions this season, which is tied for first in the league.
T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree all have at least six sacks through eight games. Watt leads the team in sacks with seven. Watt ranks first in quarterback hits with 24 and Tuitt ranks second with 17. Watt also leads the league in quarterback pressures with 34 and Dupree is tied for sixth with 22. Vince Williams leads the league in tackles for loss with 15 and Watt ranks second with 14.
Watt and Tuitt are having All-Pro seasons so far and Watt is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. Cam Heyward might not have the numbers like he did last year so far this season, but he's still playing at a high level. As we saw against the Cowboys when he bull-rushed left guard Connor Williams and sacked Garrett Gilbert along with Watt on a fourth-and-8 play late in the fourth quarter for a loss of 17 yards.
The run defense ranked second in the league, allowing just 68.8 yards per game before getting gashed by the Ravens in Week 8 for 265 yards on 47 attempts, an average of 5.6 yards per carry and then last week they allowed 144 yards rushing to the Cowboys on 31 attempts, an average of 4.6 yards per carry.
The run defense needs to be stouter and getting back Tyson Alualu and possibly Mike Hilton for Sunday's game against the Bengals should help. Alualu played just six defensive snaps against the Ravens before suffering a knee injury and was out against the Cowboys last week as well, in addition to Hilton who's missed the last two games with a shoulder injury.
Tomlin said on Friday that he expects Alualu to be active for Sunday's game and characterized Hilton as questionable, who was a limited participant in practice for most of the week.
The Steelers rank fifth in pass defense this year, allowing 214.6 yards per game. But they have given up some big plays, allowing 29 passes to be completed for 20 yards or more, which is tied for the seventh-most in the league.
They have also allowed three passes to be completed for 40 yards or more, with two of those completions going for touchdowns.
So, moving forward the Steelers' secondary needs to improve on not give up so many explosive plays through the air, especially when they start going up against better passing quarterbacks, like Mahomes if they meet in the playoffs.
They also need to get better in third-down defense, as they rank 20th in the league currently, allowing a 44.25% conversion rate. If they play against Mahomes in Pittsburgh or Kansas City in January, they must fine-tune in those two areas -- giving up explosive plays and third-down defense.
According to Brooke Pryor of ESPN, the Steelers are one of 28 teams in the Super Bowl era to start 8-0. Of the 27 teams to start 8-0, all made the playoffs and 15 made the Super Bowl. Eight of those teams won the whole thing. But since 2010, all nine teams that started 8-0 failed to win the Super Bowl. The last team to win a title after an 8-0 start was the 2009 New Orleans Saints.
With an 8-0 start to the season, anything less than making it to the AFC Championship Game would be a major disappointment. And like mentioned before, I think it will be the Steelers and Chiefs playing in that game.
There are areas to improve on both sides of the ball, certainly, but this team is built to make a Super Bowl run. This might be Roethlisberger's last legit chance to win another Super Bowl title, considering some of the key pending free agents they might lose this offseason.
Heyward simply doesn't care about the narrative that the Steelers are winning ugly.
“They hate us 'cuz they ain’t us,” Heyward said on Wednesday. “We don’t really care what’s going on outside of here. We’ve got to focus on us.”
“If it doesn’t look pretty, who cares? We’re 8-0. It’s our job to keep stepping us week in and week out, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard than what everybody else thinks.”
Heyward is also aware that the Super Bowl champion isn't crowned in November and that there's still a long way to go until February.
“For all the guys looking and saying ‘it’s got to look like this’, one thing I can say is, the Super Bowl winner hasn’t been determined," Heyward said. "We’re gonna keep working. Our job is to make the playoffs, and then to win the Super Bowl. So I’m gonna leave it at that.”