As we’re in the stretch run in the National Football League’s regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be lurking as a sleeping giants. The Steelers currently have a record of 9-6, and although they’ve played second fiddle to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North this year, Pittsburgh still has what it takes to be a very tough out if they’re able to qualify for the postseason. But the Steelers have really hurt themselves this year due to the fact that they were swept by the Baltimore Ravens. And even though that the Steelers could be a dangerous team in the postseason, they have to get in first.
After winning the AFC Championship in 2010, the Steelers were becoming an older team which is something that needed to be addressed. The Steelers would make the postseason once again in 2011, but they were eliminated in the AFC Wild Card Game at the hands of the Denver Broncos which paved the way for a roster overhaul.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin saw the need to not only get younger, but to also change the style of play in Pittsburgh. Tomlin would part with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in favor of former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley. And whereas in the past the Steelers would rely mainly on their running attack, they are a team that can now air out the football.
With Haley calling the plays, the Steelers offense has morphed and they now have the fifth ranked passing offense in the National Football League this season. At the age of 33, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still the leader of the Steelers offense as he can air it out with the best of them. Roethlisberger is the Steelers all-time leader in passing yardage (42,641) and in 2014, he led the NFL in passing yardage with 4,952. Roethlisberger’s success in recent years has been in large part to his connection with wide receiver Antonio Brown. Brown is in his sixth season with the Steelers, but he has really come on since 2013 as he has accounted for more than 4,500 receiving since then. Brown led the NFL in receiving yards last year with 1,698 and he’s in the running to do it again this year as he currently has 1,647 receiving yards. And with just one game left in the regular season, there is still a possibility that Brown could set an NFL record for most receiving yards in a single-season which was set by Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in 2012 with 1,964 receiving yards. Brown, along with wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton have given the Steelers arguably their best trio of wide receivers in the franchise’s history as their speed and pass-catching ability puts a ton of pressure on opposing secondaries to cover them.
Early in the season it appeared that the Steelers offense was going to be in trouble when running back Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year due to a knee injury. Last season Bell accounted for more than 2,000 all-purpose yards which included 83 receptions coming out of the backfield which would be hard to replace. But the Steelers indeed hit the jackpot with running back DeAngelo Williams.
Williams is in his tenth year in the National Football League, but his first with the Steelers. Williams spent his first nine years in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers where he became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. But even at the age of 32, Williams is not a worn down running back due to the fact that he’s only had one season in which he carried the football more than 250 times. Williams still has explosiveness as a running back as he is flirting with gaining 1,000 yards on the ground this season and his veteran presence is vital for the Steelers as he can be a player that is trusted on passing situations when it comes to picking up the blitz.
The Steelers offensive has struggled at times this season which included watching Roethlisberger injure his knee in a Week 3 victory over the St. Louis Rams. Roethlisberger would miss four games, but as the season has gone on, the offensive line in front of him which is without four-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey who is out for the season due to a broken fibula, has come together to give Big Ben the solid passing pocket that he needs to throw the deep pass down the field to Brown, Bryant, and Wheaton.
2015 was the first time in 12 years that the Steelers would begin a season without Dick LeBeau as their defensive coordinator. The Steelers wanted to move on from LeBeau and they replaced him with Keith Butler. Butler has been the Steelers linebackers coach since 2003, but he has finally gotten his shot at calling plays. The Steelers are ranked 23nd this year in total defense, as they’ve been an up an down unit and we’ll have to wait and see if they’ll be able to put it altogether in January.
Defensive end Cam Heyward is in his fifth season with the Steelers and he’s having his best statistical season to date as he leads the team in sacks with 7. The Steelers organization has been predicated by the play of their linebackers and after once being the weak link, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has now become the leader of the unit as he leads the club in tackles this season with 110.
After losing to the Bengals at home in Week 8, the Steelers were 4-4 and they were searching for answers. But since then the Steelers are 5-2 and it hasn’t hurt them that Roethlisberger returned to the team as he is indeed a catalyst. But just as good as Roethlisberger is when he is locked in, he can be equally as bad as his two interceptions against the Ravens yesterday really hurt the Steelers. Prior to yesterday’s game, the Steelers offense had been on a roll as they had scored 112 points in their three previous games. And when the Steelers offense is rolling on all cylinders, they will be a tough match-up for any team if they are able to reach the postseason.
The Steelers need to finish off the Cleveland Browns this Sunday in order to keep themselves in the running for the playoffs as they will also need a loss by the New York Jets and possibly the Broncos to make it. And for the Steelers, they can still be very dangerous as a wild card team due to the fact that they won it all as a wild card in 2005 with Roethlisberger at quarterback; but they will need a sense of urgency against the Browns.
Last January saw the Steelers eliminated at home in the AFC Wild Card Game by the Ravens and they’re are looking to avoid the same fate. Tomlin’s team came into the playoffs last year hot, but they were unable to replace the presence of Bell who was lost late in the season to a leg injury. This time around the Steelers have Williams who has picked up the slack while their overall offense will keep them in any game. The Steelers offense has been able to mask some deficiencies of the team’s defense and even with that, this a team that could still be bound for Santa Clara, California for Super Bowl 50 in February if they are able to get into to the postseason.
Tomlin and the Steelers aren’t strangers to the postseason, and they are also familiar with raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy which acknowledges the Super Bowl Champion as no other organization has done it more times (six) in the National Football League. But if the Steelers want to do it once more, they have plenty of work ahead of them.