Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the league, teams were beginning to see what I see.
Okay, so maybe this won’t be the Pittsburgh Steelers-themed Christmas classic that the opening line suggests, but Steelers faithful certainly have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season, as they have clinched their first playoff appearance in three years.
I see a team that is continuing to emerge as the calendar peels back the weeks into the new year, playing with more cohesion and ball security and becoming a team that just about anybody should be worried about.
At the very least, we have learned this season that, for the first time in recent memory, the Steelers truly have an offense that can compete with any team on any given day, and that they can do so both on the ground and through the air.
Even with a pair of ‘down’ performances in offensive production, the Steelers still rank seventh in the league in terms of points scored, averaging 27.3 points per game, thanks in large part to Ben Roethlisberger’s 30 touchdown passes and the eight rushing touchdowns from Le’Veon Bell, seven of which have come in the last five weeks.
While their defense has been a unit in transition, they have been able to hold their last three opponents to 21 points or less, which has easily been the best such stretch for the team this season. Overall, they rank 19th in the league, allowing 23.4 points per game, but they are coming off a superb effort in terms of red zone defense against a highly successful red zone offense.
Certainly, there are plenty of questions remaining to be answered, but the optimist in me would like to believe that we are seeing things coalesce late in the year that could translate into a playoff push.
Rookie Stephon Tuitt has entered the starting lineup over the past three weeks, and has played a bit better with each passing game—either way an improvement over Cam Thomas. In the last game, he recorded both his first career sack and forced fumble, and also continued to show the motor that makes him an excellent bookend to Cameron Heyward on the other side.
Moreover, the linebackers are finally fully healthy, to the point where Dick LeBeau is struggling to find playing time for all of them. James Harrison in particular looks refreshed and renewed and is coming off perhaps his best game of the year, while Jason Worilds put together a strong pass rushing effort after falling off the radar.
Rookie first round pick Ryan Shazier has struggled to get back on the field because of those playing in front of him, while Troy Polamalu looks to return for the season finale. The cornerbacks seem to have finally settled in between William Gay, Brice McCain, and Antwon Blake. They may not be the most talented group in the world, but they have been playing together for a while now, and perhaps the renewed pass rush glimpsed in the last game will help them out during the playoffs.
All of this should provide a bit of comfort as we sit here on the night before Christmas, ready and waiting to see if the Steelers can clinch the division title on Sunday.