Chiefs’ Playoff Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

With the Chiefs Wild Card game closing in fast, here's a preview of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The playoffs are finally upon us! Earlier this week, we took a brief look at the entire AFC field in the playoffs this season. You can read our Playoff Primer here. Now that gameday is upon us, it’s time to take a more in-depth look at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Chiefs and Steelers will face off Sunday night at 8:15 EST in Kansas City.

The Basics

The Steelers finished the 2021 regular season 9-7-1. They finished 2-6 this season in games against playoff teams. Their two wins included a season-opening victory over the Buffalo Bills and a Week 15 win over Tennessee. Pittsburgh played close to .500 all season but won three of their final four games to squeak into the playoffs as the AFC’s #7 seed.

In most seasons, the Steelers likely wouldn’t be a playoff team at all. Before last season, the NFL expanded the playoff field to 14 teams. It’s due to this new rule that these Steelers made the playoffs at all. Before the Week 18 slate of games, the Steelers needed to win and get some serious help to sneak into the Playoffs. Not only did the Steelers need to defeat the Ravens, but they also needed the Colts to lose to the lowly Jaguars. Both of those things happened, catapulting the Steelers to an unlikely playoff berth.

Mike Tomlin showed this season why he’s one of the best in the game. After posting a winning season for the 15th consecutive time, Tomlin set an NFL record to start his career. The Steelers have some veteran leadership both on the sidelines and on both sides of the football. Although they played poorly for much of the season, they also showed up in some big games. They shouldn’t be entirely discounted. It is playoff football, after all; anything could happen!

The Offense

The Steeler’s offense isn’t quite the same as years past. Big Ben’s arm is shot. As a result, Pittsburgh ranked among the worst in the league, with just 5.4 net yards per pass attempt this season. This offense ranked 21st in points scored this season, scoring at least 30 points just one time all season. Perhaps even worse, their 4.8 yards per play ranked 29th in the NFL this season. Only the Giants, Texans, and Panthers fared worse. This team has come a very long way from the Killer Bees days.

The offensive line for Pittsburgh is not good. It’s clear that the team cannot pass the ball well. The problem on offense is that they cannot run the ball well either. This season they ranked just 29th in rushing yards. They averaged just 3.9 yards per rush attempt, ranking 29th in the league as well. The Steeler’s offense does not do much well on offense. Big Ben’s arm will be the largest question heading into the Wild Card matchup.

The Steelers boast a strong duo of Wide Receivers in Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. Standout rookie Najee Harris also had an immediate impact this season. He posted nearly 1700 total yards and ten touchdowns in his rookie season. This production, despite poor quarterback play and an awful offensive line. The Steelers have a strong group of skill players on offense but will need Big Ben to muster one last playoff run out of his arm to be successful. I’m not certain that it can happen. The Chiefs pass rush and secondary should make for a tough day for this unit.

The Defense

On the defense, the story is very similar to Pittsburgh. The defense is studded with many outstanding playmakers, including TJ Watt, Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and more. TJ Watt just completed a season where he tied the NFL sack record. Despite such a strong roster, the Steelers ranked just 20th in points allowed this season. They allowed the ninth-most yards of any defense in the NFL.

What happened to the Steeler’s defense? Just last season, the team’s defense was outstanding. In 2020 they ranked third in points allowed, third in yards allowed, and allowed the second-fewest yards per play in the NFL. This season the Steelers rank ninth in passing yards allowed. Last season they ranked third. While this decline is notable, they still rank amongst the top ten teams in the NFL.

The largest difference comes in two major categories: rushing yards allowed and turnovers. In 2020, Pittsburgh allowed 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. They finished eleventh in the NFL in total rush yards allowed that season. In 2021, they allowed 5.0 yards per rush and finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. Teams can run the ball on the Steelers this season.

Turnovers are the other large difference versus the dominant season before. In 2020 this team finished the season with the sixth-highest turnover rate. 13.8% of defensive drives finished with a turnover. In 2021, that number was down to 10.8%. That ranks the Steelers as eighteenth in the NFL. For the Steelers to contend with the rest of the AFC playoff field, they must be able to stop the run and get turnovers. Otherwise, they’ll indeed get bounced in the first round.

The Verdict

The reality of this team is that they’re just not a great football team. Mike Tomlin is a great leader but can’t overcome his aging quarterback and slumping defense. Ben Roethlisberger may one day enter the NFL Hall of Fame, but his arm is shot, and he’s not able to stand in the pocket like he once could. TJ Watt capped off one of the elite seasons in NFL history as a pass rusher, but he alone cannot turn the tide on the defense.

Despite some key players at critical positions and good leadership overall, the Steelers are about to enter a rebuild. They need a new Quarterback. Their run defense needs retooling, and their offensive line needs a complete makeover. It’s entirely possible that the team comes out with fire this week. After being clear underdogs, given no shot to win this game, perhaps the defense stops the Chief’s run game. Maybe the secondary intercepts a couple of Patrick Mahomes passes to turn the tide in their favor. Anything can happen, but I wouldn’t put the percentage chance very high.

The Steelers are not a great football team, and they head into Arrowhead to face off against a Chiefs team that has heard all season how they aren’t great; they aren’t the same. Not a single Chief player was named first-team All-Pro. The Chiefs are out for blood, and it might just be a blood bath on Sunday night.

What are your thoughts on the Steelers ahead of this Wild Card matchup? Leave a comment down below to join the discussion.

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