A little Stats of the Weird, pre-game edition for you guys. The play of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense can’t be talked about enough the second half of the season. No, they’re not facing the likes of the Philadelphia Eagles or Buffalo Bills, offenses that can score at will, but playing in the NFL is hard. Always playing catch up, always reacting, and the rulebook has been crafted to favor points, not slugfests.
Over the last six games, the Steelers haven’t allowed more than 17 points per game. The “max’ came in a 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts, the first game of the streak, and since, they’ve even held teams to less than that. Sixteen points given up to the Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, and Carolina Panthers, ten points to the Las Vegas Raiders, and thirteen points Sunday night in the Ravens’ rematch.
Right now, that six-game streak is the longest since 2004, an impressive figure as it sits. But if they can replicate that one more time and push that streak to seven, it’ll be the Steelers’ longest single-season streak since 2001 when they did it a whopping eight games in a row. Anytime you do something that hasn’t been done in 20 years, it’s worth noting, especially around these parts where the quirky and weird and strange are the things we love the most.
In fact, a seven-game streak would be just the franchise’s eighth such one since the 1970 merger and only the third since the Steel Curtain-era ended. The only other two streaks came in that aforementioned 2001 and again in 1994. It was a streak common in the 70s, including by the 1976 defense, considered one of the best in NFL history, doing it nine games in a row that year.
Bringing it back to today, the Steelers defense has kept a lid on things. It’s a key ingredient to the team’s formula of turning their year around. Run the ball on offense, don’t turn it over, get stops on defense to keep the score down. Pittsburgh’s 6-2 record since the bye looks pretty but their wins have been, in typical Steelers’ fashion, close and blood pressure-rising inducing. Only once since the bye has Pittsburgh won by multiple possessions, 20-10 over the New Orleans Saints in Week 10, and their point differential since the bye is a modest +25. To put it another way, of the seven NFL teams with six wins since the bye, the next closest point differential is the Bengals’ +42. Pittsburgh is nearly half that, winning by field goals, pulling out fourth quarter victories instead of winning by big, comfortable chunks.
Across the league this year, the Steelers are only the second team to allow no more than 17 points in six straight games. The only other group are the San Francisco 49ers, who did it seven in a row from Weeks 8-15. Tomorrow, Pittsburgh can equal it.
But wins are wins and that’s the only column that matters. Pittsburgh’s defense has had a remarkable showing with T.J. Watt returning, Alex Highsmith having a breakout year while Cam Heyward has played his best football the last two weeks. In the secondary, Minkah Fitzpatrick is making splash plays and Cam Sutton has quietly had an excellent campaign, now in-line for a hefty offseason raise.
Keeping the Browns under 17 won’t be easy. Deshaun Watson is in at QB and while he’s been rusty and the offense has sputtered but found a groove in the second half last week against Washington, putting up 21 second half points. Their run game remains potent with Nick Chubb while the Amari Cooper trade has paid off handsomely. But Pittsburgh’s at their best too and capable of meeting the moment.
Pittsburgh’s offense has made strides this year. There’s reasons to be optimistic with them for 2023, starting with Kenny Pickett’s recent encouraging play. But make no mistake. The Steelers are still in the playoff race because of the play of this defense, keeping scores down, keeping the team in the game, allowing Pickett to make plays on those final drives. That doesn’t happen if Pittsburgh is allowing 28 points per game. If this defense can do it one more time, they’ll take care of business and might just find themselves making the greatest playoff push in NFL history.