The Pittsburgh Steelers, who have thrived on weird scenarios over the past handful of years, have had another one of the most bizarre seasons in the NFL. If you told someone in July that the Steelers would be 8-5, they probably wouldn’t have doubted you but the path they have taken would be a lot harder to believe.
Undrafted rookie and August’s “camp arm” Devlin Hodges is the starting quarterback. Mid-round draft picks Diontae Johnson and Benny Snell have been prominent members of the offense. Minkah Fitzpatrick, a surprise early season trade target, has starred for the defense. The Steelers inexplicably hold the AFC’s sixth playoff spot, with a legitimate chance to hold onto it.
Transitioning from an obscenely talented offense, they saw former receiver Antonio Brown go up in flames in two different cities, and then Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season. The core of the Killer B’s is in various states of disarray, abruptly ending one of the league’s best and most exciting offensive attacks in recent memory.
In its place has been Hodges, who has been generally acceptable, though he hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire. Hodges came into the job as a result of Mason Rudolph’s poor play; Rudolph is a whole other case of weird, given how close he came to being decapitated on the field by Myles Garrett.
The defense has been the primary reason for the Steelers’ survival. The unit ranks third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and fifth in yards allowed. With ballhawks like Fitzpatrick capitalizing on one of the league’s most effective pass rushes, the defense derives much of its value from turnovers and sacks. By Pro Football Reference’s Expected Points Added metric, Pittsburgh’s defense ranks third behind New England and San Francisco. They lead the league in sacks with 48, and they’re second in interceptions with 18. Their 71 passes deflected, ranking fourth, could indicate that their interception rate is sustainable to some extent.
Outside linebacker TJ Watt is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Watt is tied for first in QB hits, and his five forced fumbles are tied for second in the league (alongside Khalil Mack). He has 12.5 sacks (tied for fourth) and two interceptions. By ESPN’s pass rush win rate among outside linebackers and defensive ends, Watt is third at 28 percent. He drives the Steelers’ success rushing the quarterback, and has helped them get by despite a crucial season-ending injury to defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt.
Bud Dupree, excelling in a contract year, has 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Cam Hayward, still the heart and soul of the Steelers, remains a Pro Bowl-caliber interior defensive lineman. First round pick Devin Bush has a chance at Defensive Rookie of the Year, solidifying the middle linebacker position. Fitzpatrick boosted the secondary, which has seen cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson finding success on the edges.
Given the offense’s general ineptitude, the Steelers would be nowhere without the defense. Hodges hasn’t been harmful, the way Rudolph was, but the offense as a whole has done little more than trying to survive. They rank 27th in yards per play and 30th in offensive DVOA. Hodges has improved things after Rudolph’s benching; the Samford product doesn’t turn the ball over, with just two picks, and his adjusted yards per attempt figure sits at a respectable 8.4. The relative success of this out-of-nowhere undrafted rookie, particularly with an anemic rushing attack and injuries to Juju Smith-Schuster and James Connor, is remarkable in itself.
Mike Tomlin will only keep rising in stock as a high-level NFL coach. He has never produced a season below eight wins since he took over in 2007. We didn’t realize until this year how much he truly dealt with in Brown — it’s incredible that Tomlin managed AB as well as he did for as long as he did. This season, with the Steelers’ unexpected win total, this might be his best chance at a second Coach of the Year honor.
This week presents a big obstacle in Pittsburgh’s quest to slip into a playoff spot. They will host the 9-4 Bills on Sunday Night Football, with a loss potentially dropping them out of the sixth seed. Buffalo’s top-tier defense will obviously present problems for Hodges and co., but as always, avoiding turnovers is the primary goal for the Steelers’ offense. Their defense will come through at some point. Bush could be key in preventing Josh Allen from making an impact scrambling.
One interesting part of the Steelers’ success: They came impressively close to knocking off the Seahawks, Ravens, and 49ers earlier this season, and could easily have at least two more victories. Pittsburgh forced five San Francisco turnovers and lost by four in part due to a crucial late fumble from Connor. They took Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to overtime in Week 5 and would likely have kicked a game-winning field goal if Smith-Schuster hadn’t coughed it up in OT. They fell by only two against Seattle in the game that Roethlisberger injured his elbow.
Margins have generally been slim this season. Nine of their 13 games have finished within one-possession. That is life when you rely on your defense to carry you. It’s no guarantee that the Steelers will keep surviving over these last three weeks, but simply being in contention is a pretty impressive achievement.