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NFL Playoff Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Can a well-balanced Pittsburgh team earn its seventh Super Bowl title?

The Steelers had a phenomenal 2017 regular season, finishing with their best record since Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year at 13-3. After a shaky 3-2 start, Pittsburgh’s only loss for the remainder of the regular season was against New England — a game that ended in considerable controversy. The late-season loss ruined the Steelers’ chances at home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, although they were still able to secure a first-round bye. Pittsburgh boasts a top-five offense and defense in terms of yards allowed, and without a true weakness, will be a difficult out in this year’s playoffs. 

Key Players

Offense: WR Antonio Brown, RG David DeCastro

The Steelers are loaded with talent on offense, but Brown and DeCastro have had particularly strong seasons and deserve recognition above others. Both players were named to the AP All-Pro team and were the heart of the NFL’s third-ranked offense in 2017.

Although he missed the regular season’s final two games with a partially torn calf muscle, Brown finished with a 101/1533/9 line, leading the NFL in receiving yards by a substantial margin. His best stretch was from Weeks 10-13 when he somehow took his game to a new level by posting a 39/627/6 line over that span. Unsurprisingly, Pittsburgh won all four of its contests in that period.

In the two games Brown missed, the Steelers averaged just 225 passing yards compared to 280.7 yards when he was in the lineup, showing his importance to Roethlisberger and the passing game. Brown will square off with Jacksonville’s elite cornerback tandem in the divisional round, but considering he went for 10/157 against them earlier this season, he shouldn’t have a problem getting open.

No offense is complete without a quality offensive line, and DeCastro served as the unit’s core all season. The powerful, athletic blocker finished as PFF’s #1 guard, which is easy to understand given DeCastro’s knack for springing big plays:

According to Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh ran the ball between a center and guard 64% of the time, showing the team’s trust in DeCastro and the other interior linemen to open up holes. For perspective, the Steelers called these types of runs at the fourth-highest rate in the league.

DeCastro didn’t just dominate as a run blocker, either. He surrendered zero sacks and only 15 pressures on 589 pass-blocking snaps this season, proving he could be elite in both phases of blocking. He’ll have his hands full this week against the Jaguars’ fearsome defensive front, but if any guard is up to the task, it’s DeCastro.

Defense: DE Cameron Heyward, CB Joe Haden

These two veterans were invaluable for Pittsburgh’s defense this season, excelling on the field and providing leadership on an otherwise young unit. Heyward had his best year as a pro, finishing with a career-high 12 sacks, which led a Pittsburgh defense that totaled the most sacks in the NFL this year. All season, Heyward’s sheer power proved to be too much for opposing offensive linemen:

His efforts earned him his first All-Pro selection, which was a surprise for a player in his seventh season, but well deserved nonetheless.

Haden had a successful first season in Pittsburgh, playing a major role in the defense’s improvement against the pass. His impact was apparent when he went down midseason with a broken leg. Prior to the injury, the Steelers were allowing just 181.8 passing yards per game. That number shot up to 251.6 in the five games Haden missed. 

Those numbers weren’t just a coincidence, either. According to Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh was ranked first in DVOA against passes to the right side of the field, or the side Haden manned all year. After many wrote Haden off towards the end of his tenure with Cleveland, he reasserted himself as a top-flight corner in 2017.

Best Win & Worst Loss

Best Win: 39-38 over Baltimore (Week 14)

The Steelers had far more resounding wins than this one, but defeating their biggest rival in December is always notable. Despite holding a six-point lead at halftime, Pittsburgh faced a nine-point deficit with less than seven minutes left in the game. In fact, the Steelers’ chances of winning had fallen to just 3.3% at that point. Pittsburgh was unfazed, however, and proceeded to drive 68 yards for a touchdown, force a three-and-out, then drive again to set up Chris Boswell’s game-winning field goal with under a minute left.

The Steelers racked up 545 yards of offense that day — 83 more than their next highest total this year. In one game, Pittsburgh showed its ability to make late comebacks and post astonishing offensive numbers.

Worst Loss: 30-9 to Jacksonville (Week 5)

In a regular season that was wildly successful, Pittsburgh’s loss to Jacksonville was a low point. Roethlisberger threw a career-high five interceptions and was so defeated after the game he openly questioned if he still had “it” to reporters. The running game had similar woes, as Le’Veon Bell failed to break through Jacksonville’s defensive front, finishing with just 47 yards on 15 carries. 

Defensively, Pittsburgh had no answer for Jacksonville’s rushing attack, yielding 181 yards and two touchdowns to rookie RB Leonard Fournette. The game was certainly one to forget for Pittsburgh, and may affect the team mentally leading up to its rematch with the Jaguars this weekend.

Previous Matchups with Playoff Teams

Week 2: 26-9 win vs (2) Minnesota Vikings

Week 5: 30-9 loss vs (3) Jacksonville Jaguars

Week 6: 19-13 win at (4) Kansas City Chiefs

Week 11: 40-17 win vs (5) Tennessee Titans

Week 15: 27-27 loss vs (1) New England Patriots

Positives: When the Steelers took down playoff teams, they did so in convincing fashion, with an average score of 28.3-13 in the wins above. If the losses are included too, the average becomes 23.6-19.2, which still bodes well for Pittsburgh’s chances against the league’s best. Another encouraging sign was Pittsburgh’s defensive play against playoff-caliber opponents. The unit allowed an average of just 295.4 yards in these games, which would’ve been good for fourth in the NFL had it maintained that figure over the full regular season.

Negatives: The obvious negative here is that the Steelers’ two losses to playoff teams came against the ones they’ll have to face on their path to the Super Bowl: Jacksonville and New England. In addition, the Steelers only had to face a playoff team on the road once. If they win this weekend, they’ll most likely have a date with the Patriots next week. Road victories are incredibly rare in New England, but especially when the visitor hasn’t faced many challenges on the road throughout the season.

Performance Leading Up to the Postseason

Aside from the last-minute loss to the Patriots, the Steelers played excellent football down the stretch. They only had one loss after Week 5, and averaged 31.3 points per game from Week 11 on. In their Week 16 matchup with the Texans, Pittsburgh posted the single best DVOA any team had in a game this season (106.4%). 

If there’s an area of concern, it’s Pittsburgh’s run defense. Before Ryan Shazier’s devastating spinal injury, Pittsburgh’s defense was allowing 96 rushing yards per game. Including the game Shazier went down, the unit has let up 127.4 rushing yards per game since. With Leonard Fournette up next, the Steelers must find a solution to their issues against the run or they could be facing an early playoff exit.

Level of Contender: High

A 13-3 regular season is something to be proud of, but with such a rich history of success, anything short of a Super Bowl win will be a failure for Pittsburgh. Fortunately, this year’s version of the Steelers has looked as good as any in recent memory. They have arguably the two best skill position players in football, along with a young defense that made strides this season and can get after the quarterback. New England may have a slight edge overall, but Pittsburgh is clearly a legitimate contender in the AFC.

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

How many interceptions did Joe Haden record in his first season with the Steelers?
Created 1/13/18
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