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Are the Steelers as good as their undefeated record?

Sunday, the Steelers rolled to a triumphant 36-10 victory over AFC North rival Cincinnati. Pittsburgh’s 26-point margin was not only the second largest of the 2020 campaign for the Black & Gold, but also the win was arguably the Steelers’ most impressive W of the season. Pittsburgh dominated in all three phases of the game. 

The win allowed Pittsburgh to remain unbeaten (9-0), extending what is now the franchise’s best start since 1979 when the Steelers started the year 7-0 en route to a 35-31 Super Bowl XIII victory over Dallas. The win over the Bengals Sunday in conjunction with a 23-17 Baltimore loss to New England later that night on Sunday Night Football helped extend the Steelers to a three-game lead in the AFC North with seven left to play.

Despite the success in the Steel City, the talk of the NFL seems to be anything but the streak Big Ben & Co. are putting together. The NFL media is instead buzzing about Lamar Jackson’s inconsistency; Bill Belichick blaming his poor start on salary cap restrictions; Kyler Murray’s hail Murray; Russell Wilson “cooking”; the dumpster fire that is NFL football in New York; and Drew Brees’ broken ribs and punctured lung.

As these topics dominate the headlines, the Steelers’ prolific start appears to be very much off the radar of the NFL’s talking heads. 

So… is Pittsburgh legitimate? Are they as good as their record says? Can they win their seventh Super Bowl?

The short answer is: The Steelers are a good team. Winning one game in the NFL is a challenge let alone winning nine in a row. However, the Black & Gold are certainly capable of being beaten. Pittsburgh likely wins their division, but are far from a lock to win the conference, let alone Super Bowl LV.

Like many things in life, there is Good, there is Bad, and there is Uncertainty. The Pittsburgh Steelers are no different, as there has been both Good and Bad during their nine-game winning-streak. There is also an err of uncertainty as the Steelers start the back half of the 2020 regular season. Here’s why:

The Good

Still Undefeated: The games haven’t always been pretty, but when the clock has struck quadruple-zero Pittsburgh has always had more points than their opponent. In a pandemic-altered 2020 NFL season, it’s hard to ask for more than that. As the saying goes, a win is a win. 

T.J. Watt: When your last name is Watt and you play in the NFL, expectations are high. In 2020, T.J. has lived up to those expectations and then some. Statistically speaking, Watt is on pace to record 53 tackles with 25 for loss with 16 sacks, 11 passes defensed, and two interceptions, plus 25 quarterback hits. Thus, the former Wisconsin Badger finds himself squarely in the race for Defensive Player of the Year. Comparatively speaking, in 2019 when T.J. finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting he tallied 55 tackles, with 14 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, two interceptions, and eight forced fumbles. 

Whether Watt wins the accolade or not, his mere presence on the gridiron cannot be praised enough. Even when he doesn’t make the play himself, the threat to do so often requires a double-team to successfully defend him.  This defensive strategy allows one of Watt’s teammates to make the big play while T.J. takes on the extra defender. 

Chase Claypool: Any team (and quarterback for that matter) would salivate over a 6’4, 240-pound pass catcher with a 4.42 40-yard dash. However, despite Claypool’s impressive measurables, some NFL scouts projected that Claypool would play as a tight end at the next level and be a developmental prospect. 

The Steelers didn’t buy into Claypool as a developmental tight end. Instead they kept Claypool in his natural position and it has paid off handsomely. Despite not appearing in ESPN’s NFL Rookie Ranking this week (a clear snub), “Mapletron” has emerged as one of the most productive rookie wide receivers. The former Irish wideout has 9 total TDs (1st); 35 receptions (T4th); 500 receiving yards (5th). And, arguably the biggest surprise of all is that Chase has proven capable of scoring as a rusher when Pittsburgh is inside the five-yard line, having done so twice on the year. 

Considering ten other wide receivers were picked before the Steelers took Claypool with the 49th pick in 2020, it’s safe to say he has outperformed himself. He will surely earn some votes for Offensive Rookie of the year at seasons end. 

Defense Wins Championships: Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler would probably tell you there is room for improvement with respect to his defense. But, the Steelers are third-best in terms of points per game (19) behind only Los Angeles (18.7) and Baltimore (18.3). Additionally, Pittsburgh is tied with Tampa Bay with an NFL-best 17 takeaways on the year. With respect to turnover differential, the Steelers clock in at No. 2 with a +9, just one behind league-leader Tennessee (+10). Typically, when your defense is stingy with points and they are flush with turnovers, your team stands to win football games. The Steelers are doing just that. 

Big Ben is Protecting the Pigskin: If you look at Roethlisberger’s passing stats this year, you will not be enamored. Ben’s 2,267 yards ranks 15th and at just 251.9 passing yards per game, No. 7 ranks 18th. And while his average QB rating (103.0) is noteworthy (9th), it is not terribly surprising given that a very large portion of his passes are high-percentage throws. Where Ben deserves his praise though is for his ball security – throwing 18 touchdowns to just four interceptions. If Ben continues at this pace, he will record his lowest season interception total of his soon-to-be 17-year career. Ben’s ability to protect the ball has paid off offensively too, averaging 30.1 points per game, the Steelers are tied for the third-highest average in the league, just 1.7 points per game behind league-leading Seahawks.

The Bad

Ben’s Deep Ball: Throughout his career, Ben has had the opportunity to play with some of the best, most sure-handed wideouts in the league, many of whom had blazing speed. As such, it had become commonplace for the notoriously strong-armed Roethlisberger to make opposing defenses pay. In 2020, the deep ball accuracy just isn’t there. Not only does it seem as if Ben is throwing fewer deep balls then he has in years past, but also, he seems to be overthrowing receivers on the long ball at least once a game. While these inaccuracies haven’t hurt Pittsburgh yet, they will loom large when they’re in an offensive shootout against Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and others.

Ground Game: As a team, the Steelers trio of running backs – James Conner, Benny Snell, and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. have a combined total of 800 rushing yards with a combined 199 carries to average just a smidge above four yards per carry. For context, Conner, Pittsburgh’s lead halfback has just 556 yards (12th) on 132 attempts for an average of 4.2 yards per carry (27th).  Additionally, Conner hasn’t exceeded the century mark on the ground in his last four starts despite doing so in three of his first five games. Simply put, the Steelers need to rectify this if they plan to make a deep postseason run. 

Conservative Play Calling: The Steelers have the best record in the NFL, for that they deserve credit. However, given the dominant defense they have, plus a plethora of offensive weapons, they play too conservatively – playing not to lose rather than playing to win convincingly. 

With this mentality, the Steelers have become predictable on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they have a tendency to run or throw screens on first and second down religiously to set up third and obvious passing situations. Similarly, it usually takes the Steelers accruing a double-digit deficit before they will open the playbook to a more aggressive passing attack with mid-range and deep balls. Given their documented ground game woes and Ben’s struggles with the deep ball, this is a bold strategy.   

Defensively, the Steelers are prone to the “bend but don’t break” philosophy. In that, they are largely content playing zone, giving the small gains all day. As long as they hold opponents to a field goal, they’re pleased. Additionally, the Steelers frequently fall victim to a missed assignment or big play down field – usually surrendering at least one of each per game. 

While this overly conservative strategy hasn’t failed yet, it is bound to at some point. Thus far, more than half (5) of their victories were by one a touchdown or less. Another two were by a slightly larger nine-point margin (Eagles), and a 10-point margin (Giants). These margins prove particularly telling when considering that six of the nine Steeler opponents have losing records. 

Declining Rush Defense: Through week 7, teams couldn’t run the ball on Pittsburgh. Over that span, the Steelers did not allow a team to get 100 rushing yards. And, only in three of those seven did they surrender more than 70 yards. Over the last three games however, Pittsburgh has given up 200 yards and a touchdown (Baltimore), 108 yards (Dallas), and 100 yards last week (Cincinnati). What makes this more troubling is Pittsburgh has to play Baltimore and Cincinnati again, plus a matchup with rival Cleveland – a top-5 rushing team with the deepest backfield in football. 

The Uncertain

Ben’s Health: At 38-years-old it is no surprise that Ben has lost a step or two. He is no longer the elite quarterback he once was, though he is still capable. He is coming off a 2019 season that concluded with season-ending elbow surgery after a week 1 injury. While the Steelers stumbled to an 8-8 record last year without their franchise signal caller, it’s evident Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges are not the successor. Whether the season prospers or faulters will depend on Ben’s health. If Ben goes down with a significant injury, so do the hopes for the 2020 postseason. Given that Ben has already sustained injuries to both knees and has a newly repaired throwing elbow, fans should hold their breath until the final snap of 2020. 

COVID-19: Thus far in 2020, the only truly unstoppable, unbeatable foe on an NFL football field (and the world) has been the coronavirus pandemic. Truthfully, the virus has the ultimate control over how the remaining regular season and postseason will unfold for every NFL team, Pittsburgh included. With a single positive test, the Steelers stairway to seven could be made exponentially easier or harder depending which way the corona scales tilt on test day. Similarly, many positive tests in rapid succession across the league have the ability to bring the NFL to a halt. 

In the end, the Steelers are a good, but flawed team that just so happens to be 9-0. While being undefeated deep into what has been the most unpredictable NFL season is commendable, Pittsburgh is not as dominant as their record would lead you to believe. 

Tomlin will guide his team to yet another AFC North division title, but beyond that, all bets are off. Unless significant adjustments are made on both sides of the ball, No. 7 won’t bring home Pittsburgh’s seventh Super Bowl in February. 

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