The Pittsburgh Steelers seemed all but certain to reach the postseason three weeks ago. They were in the drivers seat to earn a first-round bye as well. However, things have dramatically changed following two disappointing losses to the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Chargers. Their division lead is down to a half-game and they face two tough games against the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints. The bottom line is the Steelers playoff chances are quickly becoming precarious.
Underwhelming start to the season
The Steelers got off to a disappointing 1-2-1 start this season, largely because of self-inflicted wounds and defensive issues. Offensively, they never had a chance to establish the running game due to early deficits. The passing game was hampered as well due to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown being almost completely out of sync. Many possessions prematurely stalled due to a lack of execution, penalties, or they ended in three and outs.
The inefficiencies of the offense exposed the defensive weaknesses and put them on the field much more than they should have been. Despite all of this, the defense did an admirable job of giving the Steelers a chance during the first four games. They proved that if the offense could pick it up and get it together, that the Steelers had a chance to make up some of the ground they lost.
Steelers rebound from slow start
The Steelers kept working while most were doubted them and responded with six straight wins. They climbed to the second spot in the AFC. While averaging 32.8 points per game. Defensively, they took over the league in sacks. Most importantly, they were doing the little things very well and began looking like Super Bowl contenders. The Steelers put together their most complete performances of the season during this six week period. They showed what kind of team they can be when they focus and finish on every play and series.
During this stretch their two best games were arguably against the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers combined for 93 points, 838 yards of total offense, and held the ball for 59:43. The defense combined for 11 sacks, three forced fumbles, and a pick six. The Steelers proved two things during their winning streak. One, they can score at will, and two, the defense can shut down potent offenses. What they didn’t do was turn the ball over and commit other self-inflicted wounds.
Two game regression started in Jacksonville
The Steelers recent two game losing streak started percolating in Jacksonville when they committed three turnovers and went 3-11 on third downs. They barely did just enough to win. Ultimately the Steelers looked more like the team that won one of their first four games than the team that won six in a row. The turnover issue bled over to the Denver game enough to offset 527 yards of total offense, along with the Steelers inefficiency on third down. Despite their dominance in yardage, time of possession, and first downs, four turnovers led to a 24-17 loss.
This past Sunday night, the Steelers jumped out to a 23-7 first-half lead and looked like they’d dominate. However, in the second-half, the offense went into hibernation again. Roethlisberger threw another interception and the offense went 3-10 on third downs. Many blame the referees for the loss. The fact is the Steelers blew a 19 point lead and couldn’t make a stop in the second-half. The latest loss dropped them to 7-4-1, reduced their division lead to a half-game. The Steelers playoff chances are quickly becoming precarious.
The bottom line
The Steelers have come a long way since week one, but they still have a long way to go. They still control their own destiny. As far as getting a first-round bye goes, that’s beyond their control. The bottom line is that the Steelers have two big games against the Patriots and the Saints coming up, but before that they go to Oakland. Roethlisberger has never beaten the Raiders on the road. This game is no gimme and they need to win it. Either way it’s now a four game season and if the Steelers want to punch their postseason ticket, they’ll need to win three of these games. If not, their destiny will be in someone else’s hands.