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NFL Playoff Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

Dec 25, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a pass during the first quarter of a game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are red-hot right now, but can they continue that into the postseason?

The NFL Playoffs are upon us and with them comes excitement, a whole lot of nail-biting, and unfortunately some sulking amongst the fans of those teams that didn’t quite make the cut. Now is the time for every team to showcase their best selves, and the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to be doing this already at just the right time, coming into the postseason on a seven-game winning streak. Can the AFC North Champions make a Super Bowl run or are they doomed to fall short against the other titans of the AFC?

Key Players:

Offense: Le’Veon Bell, Running Back; Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback

Le’Veon Bell has arguably been the best running back in the league this season, and while he likely won’t win the MVP Award, it’s hard not to at least mention him in the discussion. Due to his three-game suspension, people haven’t quite grasped Bell’s effectiveness and importance to the Steelers’ offense. He is ranked first in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, third in rushing yards, and second in receptions as well as receiving yards for a running back through 16 weeks, despite playing fewer games than his competition.

Additionally, Bell has easily been the most vital player to Pittsburgh’s success of late. The rejuvenation of the defense has also been very important, but Bell’s continued production, as well as consistent performances, has been the biggest key to the current winning streak. Following a loss to Dallas in Week 11, Pittsburgh decided to take a more conservative run-first approach to their offense. In his first six games of the season, Bell only had two games in which he rushed the ball 20 or more times, with the high being 21. Following the loss to Dallas, Bell didn’t have a single game where he rushed less than 20 times and rushed 28 times or more in half of those games. 

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Charles LeClaire - USA Today

Likely the most impressive performance of his was against the Buffalo Bills, when he rushed the ball 38 times for 236 yards, had 62 receiving yards, and punched the ball in for three touchdowns. The Steelers have relied on his consistency and it has paid off. No team has found an answer for him yet, and that makes the Steelers dangerous. 

The other player who is also extremely important to the offense is of course Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger has been the leader of this Pittsburgh squad for over a decade, and has two rings to his credit. In the playoffs, having a veteran leader is extremely important, and Roethlisberger has played the second most playoff games among the postseason quarterbacks behind Tom Brady.

With the Steelers taking a conservative approach to offense this season, Roethlisberger’s statistics haven’t quite been astronomical. But instead, he has posted steady and  consistent numbers, a change to the numbers from the gunslinger in years past. Up until Week 11, Roethlisberger had thrown 17 touchdowns to just seven interceptions while since then, he has thrown just nine touchdowns and six interceptions. Still, he has held the entire offense together. Against Baltimore, in what was the most pivotal matchup of the season, Roethlisberger put together a fourth quarter comeback for the ages and orchestrated one of the best last-minute drives of the season, putting his team in position to win the game before feeding Antonio Brown and letting his trusted receiver do the rest. 

The veteran arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the unstoppable force of Le’Veon Bell create a two-headed monster of an offense in Pittsburgh that has shown a capacity of scoring on any given drive. But it’s not just the offense that has contributed to recent success: the defense that has stepped up tremendously.

Defense: Ryan Shazier, Linebacker; Artie Burns, Cornerback

Ryan Shazier is one of a kind. There is no linebacker in the entire league that has his speed, and his ability to be all over the field at once. Since being drafted in the first round a few years ago, Shazier has been plagued by multiple injuries that had him considered a potential bust early in his career. Since then, he has burst onto the scene, and has become one of the more underrated linebackers the league has to offer.
While Shazier’s speed allows him to play coverage pretty well, and he’s had a couple of interceptions and pass break ups throughout his career, one of the things he has consistently contributed is run defense. 

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Charles LeClaire - USA Today

Pittsburgh has sneakily had one of the best run defenses in the league, not allowing a  running back (besides in Week 17) to rush for over 100 yards in the last eight weeks of the season. Shazier has been a big reason for this. He can be seen flying through the offensive line with his blazing speed and disrupting plays before they even begin or going from sideline to sideline, never allowing the running back to reach that edge. 

Another key defensive player for the Steelers is cornerback Artie Burns. While the Steelers have three high impact rookies this year, including Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, and Burns probably hasn’t been the best of them, he still plays the most important role and could be crucial on defense for the team. Throughout the season, he’s been slowly promoted and has now been starting for the team. 

In that timespan, Burns has showed plenty of capability, consistently keeping up with receivers, breaking up passes, and has three interceptions on the season. In recent weeks, however, some quarterbacks have taken advantage of his inexperience and have capitalized on big plays. If the Steelers’ secondary wishes to continue what has been a major improvement from the past few years, Burns will need to become more solid and reliable down the stretch. 

Best Win and Worst Loss

Best Win: 43-14 over Kansas City Chiefs (Week 4)

With Le’Veon Bell’s return, the Steelers defeated one of the better teams in football in a total blowout. Roethlisberger was nearly flawless, throwing for 300 yards, and five touchdowns on the day while Bell made his return known with 144 rushing yards. The Steelers’ offense finally had the Three Killer B’s (Brown, Ben, Bell) and showed the offensive capability right from the get-go. 

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Charles LeClaire - USA Today

Worst Loss: 34-3 against Philadelphia Eagles (Week 3)

Just a week before the big bounce back against Kansas City, the Steelers had one of the most embarrassing games against the Eagles. While they could argue that Bell was still suspended at the time, they were absolutely demolished by an Eagles team that had people drooling over Carson Wentz, and the Philadelphia squad, before disappointing people. Pittsburgh was held scoreless, and Roethlisberger threw an interception as the defense was continuously pummeled, allowing nearly 500 total yards in the worst loss in franchise history since 1989. 

Previous Matchups with Playoff Teams

Week 4: 43-14 Win vs (2) Kansas City Chiefs

Week 6: 30-15 Loss vs (6) Miami Dolphins

Week 7: 27-16 Loss vs (1) New England Patriots

Week 10: 35-30 Loss vs (1) Dallas Cowboys

Week 13: 24-14 Win vs (5) New York Giants

Positives: The Steelers routed one of the best teams in the league in the Chiefs, and also beat the New York Giants, who were on a win streak of their own at the time. Additionally, it should be noted that the loss to New England was without Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers held their own. 

Negatives: The Steelers played absolutely terribly against the Miami Dolphins, who happen to be their wild card matchup. Additionally, the Steelers proved incapable of shutting down potent offenses like that of the Dallas Cowboys, especially late in the game. Dallas countered with a touchdown every time the Steelers scored one of their own. 

Performance Leading Up to the Postseason

The Steelers are on a seven-game winning streak and are one of the hottest teams in football. Since changing their offensive scheme and with their defense steadily improving, they are one of the most dangerous teams in the league. The Steelers won the AFC North in intense fashion with an 11-5 record, barely beating out the Ravens with a crucial victory on Christmas Day. The Steelers are the 3rd seed and are set up to play the Dolphins, and if they win, the Kansas City Chiefs. This is a team that has survived multiple suspensions, injuries, and other setbacks, but seem to have everything together down the stretch.

Level of Contender: Surprise Super Bowl Threat

At this point, no one should be counting out Pittsburgh. This is a team that has shown up at the right time, and have seems impossible to beat in recent weeks. With that being said, they have a tough road ahead if they want to contend for the Super Bowl. While the Dolphins beat the Steelers in the regular season, Pittsburgh is viewed as the favorite.

If the Steelers were to beat the Miami, they would have to travel to arguably the two hardest stadiums to play in against two red hot teams in the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. They beat the Chiefs earlier this year, but playing at Arrowhead is a whole different scenario. It’s not impossible to envision this Pittsburgh team hoisting the Lombardi at season’s end, but it will be a tough road to do so. If the Steelers can remain healthy and stay consistent like they have in recent weeks and play solid defense, watch out. They may just surprise you.

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Emily Greitzer.

SQuiz
How many playoff games has Ben Roethlisberger played in?
Created 1/3/17
  1. 15
  2. 16
  3. 17
  4. 18

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