Steelers the ‘Least Complete Playoff Team’?

Ben Roethlisberger

Joe Sargent/Getty Images Safety Khari Willis #37 of the Indianapolis Colts tackles quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 27, 2020.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to get to the Super Bowl, they are going to have to overcome some significant shortcomings, mostly on the offensive side of the football. That’s the sentiment of Ian Hartitz of Pro Football Focus (PFF), who recently considered all of this year’s playoff teams and ranked them No. 1 to No. 14 in terms of “the best combination of offense and defense.” That is, the most complete 2020 NFL playoff team.

By that measure, Hartitz regards the Steelers as the least complete of all of the playoff entrants—dead last at No. 14. Following is a chart illustrating the rank of each team in all categories considered, with each category explained in the above-referenced link.

Here’s some of what Hartitz said about the Steelers specifically:

“The only part of the Steelers offense that we can kinda sorta compliment is the offensive line,” offers Hartitz. “No offense has been worse in EPA per run play than the Steelers. They somehow totaled just 32 rushes of 10-plus yards all season; nobody else finished with fewer than 34 such carries.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers Defense

As for the defense, PFF is dutifully impressed about how T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward have gotten after opposing quarterbacks this season, especially in the wake of season-ending ACL injuries to linebackers Devin Bush and Bud Dupree.

“The larger cause for concern is their standing as the 22nd-ranked defense in yards after contact per carry,” adds Hartitz. “This defense didn’t allow an opposing offense to surpass 105 rushing yards in Weeks 1-7; there have been seven offenses to surpass 125 yards on the ground against the Steelers in 10 games since.”

AFC Playoff Teams Ranked

As for the other teams in the AFC playoff field, the Indianapolis Colts are ranked No. 2, the Cleveland Browns are at No. 8, and the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens are No. 9 – No. 12, respectively. The No. 1 ranked team, the New Orleans Saints, is in the NFC.

Hartitz takes care to note that this isn’t a ranking of “contendership,” and adds several caveats.

Among other things, “coaching … obviously plays a massive role in any football game” and “strength of schedule wasn’t actively accounted for.”

That’s why he concludes that “the Chiefs whole-heartedly deserve to be [this year’s] Super Bowl favorites and ranked seventh in this very study in 2019,” without mentioning that Kansas City went on to win last year’s Super Bowl.

For what it’s worth, the Chiefs are ranked No. 9 this year, despite their league-best 14-2 regular season record.

Pittsburgh’s Path to the Super Bowl?

It’s also worth noting that oddsmakers consider the Steelers to have a better chance at the Super Bowl than Hartitz’s analysis would suggest, as they are the eighth most-likely team to win the Super Bowl from an oddsmaker’s perspective (+1800).

Hartitz contends that Pittsburgh’s best chance to reach the Super Bowl is for its defense to put the team on its back and carry its “flimsy offense.”

“Expecting Ben Roethlisberger to go from borderline bad to great is asking a lot at this point; this offense has played roughly two quarters of awesome ball since Week 11,” notes Hartitz. “Still, Big Ben has the sort of experience and weapons on the outside to at least field an above-average group capable of producing just enough points to complement their potential world-beating defense. This seemed far more plausible back in early November, but there’s a path to success for this team if the defense does what they do best: make life a living hell for opposing QBs.”

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