Tuesday, January 25, 2022

2021 NFL playoff picture: How Steelers can make postseason, plus predicting final three games

It was a game only a Pittsburgh Steelers fan could truly appreciate. In a game that mimicked several victories during Pittsburgh’s first championship run way back in 1974, the Steelers’ defense carried them to a 19-13 win over the Titans on Sunday in a game they needed to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. 

While they allowed over 200 rushing yards for a second straight week, the Steelers’ defense forced turnovers on Sunday that led to four field goals by Chris Boswell. Pittsburgh’s defense, buoyed by the return of cornerback Joe Haden, held the Titans to just 1 of 4 efficiency in the red zone that included its stop on Tennessee’s final possession. The offense, struggled but it did not commit a turnover. Pittsburgh’s offense also put together the only touchdown drive of the third quarter, a drive that was capped off by Ben Roethlisberger’s first touchdown run in over three years. The win kept Pittsburgh (7-6-1) within striking distance of Buffalo (8-6), who is hanging on to the seventh and final spot in the AFC playoff race. 

Let’s take a deeper dive at the Steelers’ playoff outlook by looking at their current positioning, their remaining games and a few things that Pittsburgh will try to improve on in the coming weeks. 

Current playoff position 

The Steelers moved ahead of the Browns in the AFC standings after Cleveland fell to the Raiders on Monday. Pittsburgh is now ninth in the AFC standings, with Baltimore (8-6) currently sitting as the eighth-seeded team. Four 8-6 teams — the Bengals, Colts, Chargers and Bills — currently make up the 4-7 seeds in the AFC standings. Along with a possible wild card berth, the Steelers are also in position to win the AFC North, as they are just a half-game behind first-place Cincinnati and second-place Baltimore. 

The Steelers’ Week 10 tie vs. Detroit makes it unlikely that they will have to go down to tiebreaker scenarios when it comes to playoff seeding. But in the event that it does, the Steelers would lose tiebreakers against the Chargers and Bengals. As it currently stands, the Steelers would win tiebreakers over Buffalo, Baltimore, Cleveland (7-7) and Denver (7-7). 

Pittsburgh is tied with Cincinnati, Houston, Miami, and Denver for the NFL‘s fourth-toughest remaining strength of schedule. Fortunately for the Steelers, division rivals Cleveland and Baltimore have the second- and third-toughest remaining strength of schedules, respectively. The Colts, who are currently the No. 5 seed in the AFC, have the 22nd-toughest remaining schedule. The Bills are tied with the Titans with the 23rd-toughest schedule, but they have a big game on the slate this Sunday against the AFC East-leading Patriots

Remaining schedule 

  • Week 16: @ Kansas City 

  • Week 17: vs. Cleveland (Monday Night Football)

  • Week 18: @ Baltimore 

After a 3-4 start, Kansas City has won seven straight games following last Thursday’s overtime win over the Chargers. A big reason for the Chiefs‘ turnaround has been a red-hot defense and the resurgence of Patrick Mahomes, who threw six touchdowns in his first game against the Steelers in 2018. The Chiefs were hit with adversity on Monday, however, as tight end Travis Kelce, cornerback Charvarius Ward and Harrison Butker will be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list

Steelers fans are very familiar with their team’s last two regular-season opponents. Injuries have put a damper on what was supposed to be a big season for the Browns, who were a missed field goal away on Monday night from being in first place in the North. Instead, the Browns fell to last place in the division with three games remaining. The pandemic took a major toll on Cleveland’s roster this past week, as Baker Mayfield was one of many Browns players who were unable to play in Monday night’s loss to Las Vegas. When healthy, the Browns have one of the NFL’s better rosters, as five Cleveland players were named to the 2022 Pro Bowl on Monday. 

A near lock to make the playoffs just three weeks ago, the Ravens are 8-6 after three straight losses to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Green Bay. With Lamar Jackson out with an ankle injury, backup quarterback Tyler Huntley put forth a winning performance against the Packers, with 215 passing yards and two touchdowns to go with 73 yards and two more touchdowns on the ground. But it wasn’t enough to stop the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw three touchdown passes against Baltimore’s injury-ravaged secondary. The Ravens were also victim of another unsuccessful two-point conversion attempt that sealed Sunday’s 31-30 loss. 

Areas of improvement 

Running game: Pittsburgh’s running game is in worse shape now than it was when it finished last in the league in 2020. Sunday was a new low for the Steelers’ running game, as rookie Najee Harris managed to gain just 18 yards on 12 carries. As a team, the Steelers gained just 35 yards on 17 carries. Through 14 games, Pittsburgh’s offensive line has not been able to create clean running lanes on a consistent basis. 

“We didn’t think they’d run the ball on us,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said afterward. “All their runs were jet sweeps, razzle dazzles on the outside. Didn’t think that the run game would be an issue.” 

How can the Steelers fix this? Their options are limited as far as this season is concerned. They could use fullback Derek Watt more in running situations, but if they haven’t done that yet, there’s no reason to think that they will now. The only thing that could change is more reps for tackle Zach Banner and guard/center J.C. Hassenauer, but it’s hard to fathom Tomlin making any drastic changes this late in the season, even with the running game’s ongoing issues. 

Run defense: Pittsburgh’s defense is now 31st in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and last in the league in average yards-per-carry allowed (4.9 yards). At times, Titans backs D’Onta Foreman and fellow running back Dontrell Hilliard resembled Cleveland’s successful running back combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt

As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noted after the game, Pittsburgh did a better job on Sunday minimizing big runs as opposed to their Week 14 loss in Minnesota, when Dalvin Cook torched them for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Tomlin praised safety Minkah Fitzpatrick for minimizing the damage created on runs by Foreman, Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols. Gap control, as noted by Tomlin, has to get better if the Steelers are going to clean up their run defense over the season’s final three weeks. 

“Teams are going to do the same things from here on out,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said. “If we don’t [improve], we’re going to be in a world of trouble.” 

Slow starts: Sunday marked the fourth consecutive game where the Steelers failed to score a touchdown in the first half. The last time that happened in Pittsburgh was during the 1993-94 seasons. Pittsburgh’s nonexistent running game is certainly part of the problem, but play-calling could also be better during the game’s early stages. The Steelers haven’t taken many deep shots early in games after having success earlier in the season. And they’ve largely strayed way from running anything that could be considered a gadget play, especially in the game’s opening moments. 

Look for the Steelers to try to get Roethlisberger going in the game’s early stages to avoid more slow starts. If Roethlisberger can have success early, that would be an enormous boost for a defense that has not had too many chances to play with the league during the early stages of games. 

Prediction 

With my 10-7 preseason prediction no longer a possibility, I predict a 9-7-1 final record for the 2021 Steelers. Fortunately for the Steelers, that may very well be good enough to secure one of the final spots in the AFC playoffs. 

For this to happen, Pittsburgh will have to go 2-1 during its final three games. When looking at the remainder of their schedule, this Sunday’s game at Kansas City is the Steelers’ toughest remaining game. The Chiefs will be rightfully favored, but the Steelers are capable of pulling off the upset. Pittsburgh will have to take advantage of Kansas City’s penchant for committing turnovers, as the Chiefs’ offense has turned the ball over at least twice in eight games. On offense, the Steelers have a chance to do something on the ground against a Chiefs defense 29th in the NFL in average yards-per-carry allowed (4.7 yards). 

If the Steelers beat the Chiefs, it would significantly increase their chances at making the playoffs. If they lose in Kansas City, Pittsburgh would likely have to win their final two games against Cleveland and Baltimore, two teams they defeated earlier in the season. Ironically, Pittsburgh’s run defense had one of its best efforts of the season in its Week 8 win in Cleveland, as the Browns failed to reach 100 yards on the ground. If they can duplicate that performance in Week 17, the Steelers should be able to win what could be Roethlisberger’s final regular-season game in Pittsburgh on “Monday Night Football.” 

Week 18 has the makings of another epic game between the Steelers and Ravens. There’s a very good chance that the game will determine who wins the AFC North and an automatic spot in the playoffs. Pittsburgh has had Jackson’s number in their previous three games against the former league MVP. The Ravens boast the league’s top-ranked run defense, so it’s reasonable to expect that the Steelers will test Baltimore’s 31st-ranked pass defense early and often. That’s a matchup the Steelers should win, as Pittsburgh has several formidable pass-catchers in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth

Despite their 1-3 start and their recent 0-3-1 skid, the Steelers are still very much alive in the AFC playoff race. They are far from a perfect team, but as they showed on Sunday, Pittsburgh is capable of beating anyone in the AFC. Steelers fans are hoping that they can get a chance to prove it when the playoffs begin in a little less than a month.

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