If you are a fan of the national sports media, then you may have noticed over the course of the past several weeks that the Pittsburgh Steelers have been a bit of a media darling, even having favorable odds to reach the Super Bowl heading into the final game of the season, when they were technically on the outside looking in for a playoff spot and not in control of their fate.
Many outlets, including the usual tv spots, have highlighted the Steelers as “the team that nobody wants to play”, or some derivation of the cliché, but claiming something and supporting the claim are certainly quite different. So are the Steelers really that much of a threat on paper?
For starters, there figures to be a good chance that they will for the second consecutive year enter the playoffs without their starting running back, with DeAngelo Williams in a walking boot while nursing a foot injury that he suffered in the season finale.
The Steelers’ big-play wide receiver, Martavis Bryant, has struggled for the past month, going without a touchdown or an explosive play over the last four games. He hardly played on Sunday while recovering from an illness and suffering a neck injury while making a tackle after a Ben Roethlisberger interception.
Speaking of which, Roethlisberger has thrown seven interceptions over the course of the past four games, but has thrown just six touchdowns. He may have the best combination of experience and health among AFC quarterbacks short of Tom Brady left in the playoffs, but he has not been playing his best ball of late, particularly when it comes to protecting the football.
Defensively, the Steelers gave up at least 385 yards in three of the last four games, all of which came against backup quarterbacks. The Browns’ Austin Davis is the only one they managed to get the better of, limiting him to 177 passing yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
As Dave Bryan highlighted yesterday, the defense gave up 6.17 adjusted net yards per passing attempt, which ranked just 16th in the league. Even with their offensive production through the air this year, the Steelers still finished just 10th in ANY/A differential, with a positive differential of .52 yards.
That ranks them just eighth among this year’s 12 playoff teams, and 5th among AFC teams, with only the Broncos post a lower ANY/A differential. The Steelers’ Wildcard round opponents, the Bengals, posted the best ANY/A differential in the league at a mark of plus 2.78.
On the plus side, the defense did rank tied for sixth in the league with 17 interceptions on the season, but they also finished with the third-most interception thrown on offense as well with 21. 16 of those came from Roethlisberger in 12 games, which on its own would stand as the 10th-most interceptions thrown this season.
As a team, the Steelers finished fifth offensively with 26.4 points scored per game, and 11th defensively, allowing 19.9 yards per game. their 104 net points was the seventh-best in the league, but only the fourth-best among AFC playoff teams.
The bottom line—the Steelers may prove to be a tough out of the playoffs after all, but it will require them actually playing up to their potential, which they have struggled to do lately. Does that make them a team nobody wants to play? I guess that depends on who is answering the question, but I do know that the idea that the Patriots threw games to avoid playing them is ridiculous.