There’s a consistent trait shared by the Steelers’ only three head coaches since 1969: an unwillingness to let their teams accept losing.
This common trait, which began with Chuck Noll, was continued by Bill Cowher and has since been continued by Mike Tomlin, has seen the Steelers compile the best winning percentage in the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger. That’s why the Steelers have had an NFL record 19 consecutive undefeated seasons. And that’s how the Steelers can go 20 straight seasons if they can win five of their last six games.
Betting against the Steelers — or Tomlin, to be more precise — would be unwise. Pittsburgh has never had a losing season under Tomlin, who once fabricated .500 (or better) records with strong finishes. The 2013 Steelers finished 8-8 after a 2-6 start. The 2019 Steelers also went 8-8 after a 1-4 start. Last year, the Steelers went 9-7-1 (making the playoffs after snatching the AFC’s seventh seed) after starting 1-3. Tomlin earned the benefit of the doubt, even with the Steelers currently at 4-7.
There are tangible reasons that make a 5-1 finish possible. Although unlikely, the Steelers could even make a late run to grab the seventh and final playoff spot, like they did a year ago. To do that, Pittsburgh would likely need to win at least nine games in order to have a chance of making the playoffs for a third straight year.
Let’s take a look at the top three reasons a winning season — and eventual playoff run — is possible for the Black-and-Gold.
1. Calendar Strength
Pittsburgh’s remaining schedule is one of the easiest in the league. Of Pittsburgh’s five remaining opponents, Baltimore is the only one currently above .500. The combined record of the Steelers’ remaining opponents is 24-33, which is a winning percentage of .421.
Pittsburgh has already faced Cleveland in Week 3. The Steelers led through the middle part of that game before finding themselves on the short end with a score of 29-17. Both teams will have new quarterbacks for the Week 18 rematch in Pittsburgh.
The loss at Cleveland is one of three double-digit losses the Steelers have suffered this season. The other two went against two of the NFL’s top teams in Buffalo and Philadelphia. Two of the Steelers’ first three losses came in games that could easily have had a different outcome. The same can be said of Pittsburgh’s Week 7 loss to Miami that ended in a last-minute interception in the end zone.
Rehashing the Steelers’ previous losses also highlights the fact that Pittsburgh, despite some ugly league standings in several categories, isn’t as bad as its 4-7 record would indicate. That’s why a 5-1 finish isn’t a big leap forward.
Pittsburgh addressed many of its previous issues in Monday’s win over the Colts. The Steelers had better execution (especially in weight moments) and had fewer self-inflicted injuries. This allowed the Steelers to overcome the typical speed bumps and unit malfunctions (looking at you, special teams) that occur during a game.
The schedule is lighter, but the Steelers can’t take their latest opponents lightly. The Falcons, currently just one game behind the Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South, boast the fourth best running game in the NFL and the ninth best red zone offense. The Panthers have played inspired football under interim head coach Steve Wilks and have one of the best young defensive players in the NFL in Brian Burns. All but one of the Raiders’ losses have come in a one-score game.
Rest assured the Steelers will be up for Cleveland and Baltimore. Pittsburgh will face Deshaun Watson for the first time in the division. They know Lamar Jackson much better, who is just 2-3 against Pittsburgh in his career.
Everyone knows the Steelers’ record without Watt, so there’s no need to recall Pittsburgh’s once again.
1-10 score without Defensive Player of the Year. You could say the Steelers without Watt are more important than the 90s Bulls without Michael Jordan. Chicago finished one game before the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals without Jordan. It’s hard to imagine the Steelers being a game or two away from the Super Bowl without Watt.
Watt hasn’t posted monster numbers since returning to the field three weeks ago. But his mere presence had a big impact. Tomlin made sure to address that moment after the Steelers’ latest win when a reporter asked him about the emergence of fellow OLB Alex Highsmith.
“Alex is legit. I think everyone knows that. But at the same time, it’s nice to have an old 90 on the other side of you,” Tomlin said. “I think that helps.”
Watt’s return bolsters the NFL’s highest-paid defense. And while it hasn’t always played as the highest-paid unit in the league, Pittsburgh’s defense has more than a few advantages. The unit showed a knack for making splashes, especially in the form of interceptions. Four different Steelers have made at least two interceptions this season. Levi Wallace, acquired through free agency this offseason, is tied for the team lead with three interceptions and leads the team with 11 pass breakups.
The worst defense in the league a year ago, the Steelers defense is currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed this season. Part of that success can be attributed to the addition of Larry Ogunjobi, who was signed this summer a year after helping the Bengals capture AFC North.
Pittsburgh has also had better inside linebacker play this season. Newcomer Myles Jack leads the team in tackles (by a wide margin). Devin Bush has shown great improvement in what is a contract year for the former first-round pick. The secondary has taken its pieces, as Pittsburgh is currently 30th in the league in passing yards allowed. Injuries have hit them hard over the past month-plus (Ahkello Witherspoon is still on the mend), but the unit recovers key items in time for the stretch run. The secondary continues to be led by Minkah Fitzpatrick, who currently leads all of the AFC’s free safeties in Pro Bowl voting.
He has other solid elements, but Watt is the engine that powers the Steelers defense. Watt’s presence changes the way defenses attack the Steelers. It also helps open things up or Highsmith (who hit double-digit sacks for the first time) and other members of the defense. From an intangible perspective, Watt brings an energy, intensity and confidence that simply doesn’t exist when he’s off the court.
Watt’s return is and will continue to be significant. Just ask Joe Burrow, who fell victim to two jaw-dropping plays from Watt this season.
“I’ve never seen such plays before by a defensive lineman,”after Watt recorded his second interception of the season against him two weeks ago. “He’s made two against me this year. I’d love to say I can do something about it, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
3. Offense finds its way
Pittsburgh’s offense was never going to be a juggernaut this season, but few could have imagined things would be as bad as they have sometimes been this season. The team quickly moved from Mitch Trubisky to Kenny Pickett after the offense scored just four touchdowns in the first 18 quarters of the season. Pickett was quickly thrown into the fire and went through the typical growing pains associated with being a rookie rookie quarterback.
Pittsburgh’s play call deservedly received a lot of criticism. The criticism came to a head after Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt nearly.
The Steelers quarterback’s uncertain situation to start the season no doubt contributed to some of the call-to-play issues. Pittsburgh’s offense really had no identity under Trubisky. He seems to have started to establish one with Pickett after his Week 9 goodbye. The Steelers ran more than two tight sets while leaning more into the run. It worked in the Steelers’ Week 10 win over New Orleans, but was temporarily shaken up the following week against Cincinnati when running back Jaylen Samuels left with an injury.
Despite Najee Harris’ injury on Monday night, the Steelers have stuck to the step game. The decision paid off, with Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland rushing for 92 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Pickett also contributed to the running game while continuing to make progress in the passing game. He hasn’t thrown an interception in three games after throwing eight in his first five games. Pickett continued to strengthen his relationship with fellow rookie George Pickens and tight end Pat Freiermuth. He started to trust his teammates more, as 10 different Steelers caught passes in the win over the Colts.
Pickett showed many of the qualities that made the Steelers nearly sprint to the podium to draft him with the 20th pick in the April draft. The former Pitt player displayed the precision that former general manager Kevin Colbert praised shortly after drafting him. He continued to make better decisions with the ball without becoming too conservative in his decisions. Pickett also has some intangible assets that seem to have endeared him to his teammates.
Pickett has the luxury of playing behind a better offensive line than his predecessor, future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, in his final season. While not mistaken for the “Great Wall of Dallas,” Pittsburgh’s offensive line has made some progress over the past few months. Pickett has largely been given good protection, while the Steelers running backs are on course to have their highest yards-per-carry average in over a decade (h/t Ray Fittipaldo of the Post-Gazette). The unit still needs to do a better job avoiding the costly penalties that often end rides before they can begin.
On paper, the Steelers are a better team than last year’s team. The main differences between this team and this team are Roethlisberger and a healthier Watt. Those differences this season have played a big part in the Steelers’ current standing, as they are currently three games below .500 and three games behind the AFC’s seventh seed.
The Steelers’ talent, however, should be good enough to make things interesting in the final six weeks of the season. Regardless of what happens, all six games should be very interesting for the Steelers, who could shake up the AFC standings while setting the tone for better seasons to come.