Football

Can The Steelers Make The Playoffs?

Curt Popejoy 
November 22, 2021 8:55 am ET

After a wild two weeks that included a tie to the league’s worst team, and a shootout with one of the best Quarterbacks in the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a record of 5-4-1 and are currently the 8th seed in the AFC. With a whopping 12 teams having at least five wins it is going to be a blood bath to get into the playoffs. The Steelers have a tough schedule coming up, but considering what the conference is doing to each other, let’s see where the steelers stack up in the AFC.

Current Standing

The Steelers are currently the 8 seed in the AFC but just a half game behind the 5th seed Cincinnati Bengals thanks to the tie. Also with 5 wins are the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos who are both 5-5 and are the 11th and 12th seeds respectively. The Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns both have 6 wins (more than Pittsburgh) but their 5 losses a piece put them at the 9th and 10th seeds.

With a win on Sunday against the Bengals the Steelers could vault themselves back into the playoff bracket. But after that there is still a long way to go.

The Schedule

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the “easy” part of their schedule has already come and gone. Their last 7 games of the season are:

  • At Cincinatti
  • Home for the Baltimore Ravens
  • At the Minnesota Vikings
  • Home for the Tennessee Titans
  • At the Kansas City Chiefs
  • Home for the Cleveland Browns
  • At Baltimore

Certainly a tough slate, and considering all but one game is against an AFC team competing for a playoff spot each game is as important as the next.

The timing of when they are playing these opponents also has its advantages and disadvantages. Certainly it is better to play the conference-leading Titans at this point in the season sans Derrick Henry than early on when the league had no answer for him. This Steelers team is continuing to struggle stopping the run, whereas their young secondary gets better each week. The Cleveland Browns, who the Steelers beat in Week 8, continue to look not 100% healthy. And if Baker Mayfield continues to play through injury that might not change by Week 17. And the Cincinnati Bengals, who beat the Steelers in Week 3, have cooled off from their hot start. They had lost two straight games before beating the reeling Raiders on Sunday. Pittsburgh should also be healthier in the upcoming matchup with Cincinnati after being without starters T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Dionte Johnson in the earlier matchup.

On the flip side the Steelers probably would have preferred to play the Chiefs during their early-season struggles. Rather than late in the season where the streaking Chiefs are finding their groove and are winners of four straight.

That said the Steelers have also found their stride as the season goes, except for the clunky tie in Week 10 during poor weather conditions and playing backup QB Mason Rudolph.

Mid-Season Adjustments

Tackling-

The Steelers are missing far too many tackles this year creating to many opportunities for long runs and YAC. The Steelers rank 12th and 10th via Football Outsiders in their Power Success and Stuffed stats. This means they are doing well against the run right at the line of scrimmage. But if opposing backs are able to get past the defensive line? The Steelers are just 27th and 32nd in the league in Second Level Yards and Open Field Yards. Meaning if running backs can get beyond the defensive line, there’s a good chance they can pick up extra yards.

Another good measuring of the tackling issues comes from Josh Carney of Steelers Depot who does a missed tackles report every week and keeps a running tally through the year.

Using safety Minkah Fitzpatrick as an example we can see Fitzpatrick already has 13 missed tackles on 77 attempts through 9 games this season (stats from this week not yet available). Last year he only had 14 missed tackles on 94 attempts – in all 16 games!

This isn’t to pick on Minkah. In fact if you’re watching the games you can see just how many big plays he’s saved thanks to his tackling. As the Free Safety Fitzpatrick is often the last line of defense for this team. What we should take from the stats provided is the sheer number of opportunities that Minkah has this year. Should this pace keep up Minkah will have over 130 tackle opportunities this season (more than 30 more than last year). This is more of an indictment of the players in front of him not making plays closer to the line of scrimmage.

If they want to make the playoffs the Steelers will have to clean up their tackling issues.

Turnovers –

After Week 11 the Pittsburgh Steelers have only forced 9 turnovers. That ranks tied for the third worst mark in the league. At this pace the team is looking at only about 16-17 forced turnovers for the season. Compared to last years second-ranked 27 forced turnovers that’s a big drop off.

A big cause for this is the increased amount of zone defense due to the younger, more inexperienced defensive backfield. While it positively means less linebackers matched up on wide receivers, it also means more sitting back and making the tackle, versus aggressively going for the ball.

For a team with as many problems as this one has on offense, we’re talking about the defense quite a lot. That’s because for this team to succeed this defense needs to be among the best in the league. Creating turnovers not only limits your opponents’ ability to score, but it creates more opportunities for the offense that needs all the help it can get. Doing so will go a long way towards the Steelers making the playoffs.

Red Zone Efficiency

The Steelers are not a high-powered offense. They caught teams by surprise early last year with their “catch short and run long” philosophy but that doesn’t cut it anymore. And they know that. There’s less quick slants and bubble screens this year, but it’s still not an efficient offense. Ranked just 21st in Overall Offensive DVOA and Passing DVOA, and a measly 26th in Rushing DVOA, this team needs to take advantage of every chance it can get.

Depending on what site you look at the official rankings can get a little hazy. But in short the Steelers are a bottom third team in the league in Red Zone attempts this season. Which means they have some of the fewest chances inside the opponents 20 yard line. They are also a bottom five team in total touchdowns from the red zone, and red zone efficiency. So even when they get close to their opponents goal line they are settling for field goals far too often (almost half the time).

Teams can certainly win in this league without being a heavy explosive play team, but if you can’t win deep then you must be able to drive the ball consistently down the field. And when you get there, you just have to score touchdowns. The Steelers are good at making teams play ugly, low-scoring games. But to make a real push they’ll need to start doing more on offense.


Can The Steelers Make The Playoffs?

The Pittsburgh Steelers still can make the playoffs this season. In fact the AFC North Division is still up for grabs. Just two games back of the Ravens with two games against them to go and Pittsburgh could really help their case with a win in Cincinnati this week. The Ravens still have 5 division games to go to end their season. And considering how the north stacks up against each other there’s no easy wins.

The three teams currently in the Wild Card spots (Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills) still have a combined 13 games against the AFC teams with 5 or more wins. This gives a lot of room for the Steelers to sneak back in.

It is a tough road ahead. 9 wins is the bare minimum to make the playoffs, and 10 wins would look a lot better. 10 wins would include a season sweep of either the Browns or Ravens, and a win against either the Chiefs or Titans. Neither of which is a small task.

But last week the Steelers proved to be a team with grit and good leadership. If they can continue to improve in some areas, and start showing improvement in others, there’s no reason they can’t make the playoffs this season.

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