Pittsburgh Steelers: Contenders or Pretenders?

Photo Credit: NFL.com

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to enter week 14 of the 2016 NFL season with three straight wins and a 7-5 record, they are still barely on the outside looking in when it comes to the AFC playoff picture. However, they are only half a game down to their hated rival, the Baltimore Ravens, for the division lead. Baltimore also has a 7-5 record, but they hold a slight edge over Pittsburgh since they beat them a few weeks back. Pittsburgh will play host to the Ravens in week 16 on Christmas day.

Looking at this Steelers team with only a quarter of the regular season to go before the commence of the postseason, there are a lot of things to fear about them at the moment if you are a playoff team/potential playoff team. However, they do have their flaws, but are those flaws enough to keep them out of the playoffs? Let’s go ahead and dissect this team to the point where we can truly figure out if they have what it takes to make a run at winning the Lombardi Trophy or not.

Starting with some of the reasons why they deserve to be labeled a title contender, Pittsburgh’s defense has slowly but surely improved the last few weeks. As a matter of fact, the Steelers defense leads the league in most games where their opponents fail to score over 16 points (7 games). The emergence of rookie defenders Javon Hargrave (defensive tackle), Artie Burns (cornerback) and Sean Davis (strong safety) has really been a huge benefit for defensive coordinator Drew Butler and his squad. Along with the upside in the team’s defense is the Steelers’ ability to overcome adversity, and lots of it. Just to give you all an idea of what Pittsburgh has had to play through/without, here is a list of what unfortunate things have happened to the team up to this point in the season:

  • Wide receiver Martavis Bryant suspended entire season
  • Wide receiver Markus Wheaton placed on IR after week 9
  • Defensive end Cameron Hayward placed on IR after week 9
  • Running back Le’Veon Bell suspended first weeks 1-3
  • Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed week 7 (vs New England Patriots)
  • Wide receiver Darrius Hayward-Bey inactive since week 10
  • Wide receiver Sammie Coates playing with two broken fingers since week 6
  • Tight end Ladarius Green didn’t come out of IR until week 10

As you may have noticed, a lot of Pittsburgh’s season issues have come from the offensive side of the ball, especially at the receiver position. Fortunately for the Steelers, they have had other receivers step up to the plate such as Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton to help open up the field for all-star receiver Antonio Brown, who has not missed a beat even with the team diminished at the position. One more reason why the Steelers should be considered a threat to other playoff teams is because of their knack of beating, and sometimes even destroying many of the league’s elite teams. Of course, as we all know, the playoffs contain some of the very best teams. So if Pittsburgh were to make it in, they would pose as a team that no one else would want to play against.

Now, onto some of the reasons why the Steelers may be among the list of the NFL’s “pretenders”, and it starts with the team’s inconsistency. One week they’ll blow a top 5 team out of the water, and then they’ll lose to a subpar, bottom feeder type of team the next week. No team is expected to go undefeated every year, but teams are expected to beat the teams that they are supposed to beat, if not easily. Those are the types of losses a Super Bowl contender can never afford if they are playing to claim the best playoff seed possible, which is exactly why Pittsburgh isn’t normally in the mix for a first round bye as each regular season approaches the finish line. Some teams that the Steelers should’ve definitely beaten were the Philadelphia Eagles in week 3 (2-0 at the time, but are now 5-7) and the Miami Dolphins in week 6 (1-4 at the time). If those were wins for the Steelers like they should’ve been, then we would be looking at a 9-3 team right now. A team’s consistency doesn’t always mean beating teams that you are favored to win against, but it also means how many games a team can win consecutively. Pittsburgh hasn’t won more than 4 games in a row since the 2009 season, and that says something. Yes, it is undoubtedly challenging to win up to 6+ games in a row for any team, but with at least most of the pieces together, the Steelers are fully capable of making that happen.

Another big reason why the Steelers wouldn’t be meant for a deep postseason run if they clinch is the injury bug. Without question, every team in the league gets hit with a few key injuries here and there every season, but when that injury bug lands on the Steelers, they end up being not so lucky when it comes to the amount of players that get hurt and the number of games they miss. Like what was explained before, this team is depleted at the wide receiver, meaning less fresh targets for Ben Roethlisberger to throw to. Not to mention the loss of their best defensive player, Cameron Hayward, who is also one of the team’s captains. However, if one thing ended up being on Pittsburgh’s side, it’s that these injuries didn’t happen too deep into the season, meaning we could see players such as Darrius Hayward-Bey and Sammie Coates come back just in time to make an impact in the postseason if the team gets in.

Now for the final analysis. If the Steelers manage to find themselves in the playoffs by the end of the season, this team would be labeled as a Super Bowl contender. What do Pittsburgh’s last two postseason appearances have in common? All-star half back Le’Veon Bell was never in the lineup. This year would be different, as Bell looks healthier than ever and looks primed to make his first career playoff appearance. Although the Steelers are currently suffering injuries at wide receiver, “Big Ben” Roethlisberger is still getting the job done though through the air. Speaking of the team’s passing game, former San Diego Charger tight end Ladarius Green has come through for the offense at the perfect time, and he’ll look to be a consistent target for Roethlisberger from here on out.

So with the emergence of its young defense and with its offense getting healthier each week, the Pittsburgh Steelers should be on the list of the NFL’s title contenders.

-Jake Scanlon

 

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