The Pittsburgh Steelers have had an extremely underwhelming season to start 2021. With September and the “first quarter” of the season in the books, they currently are 1-3 and two games behind every team in the AFC North. It’s going to be a difficult climb, but I’m going to outline how the Steelers can get back to first place by their Week 12 match up against the Cincinnati Bengals.
First things first, the Steelers have to play better in all three facets of the game. Head coach Mike Tomlin has been very blunt about the team not performing to expectations and I expect a drastic turnaround in the next month. There’s no sugar coating it and the stats back it up – this is a bottom five offense in the NFL. However, the Steelers have been dealing with a multitude of injuries to key playmakers like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. They have not had all of their starting wide outs since Week 1 which coincidentally coincides with their last win. The Steelers offense is likely to be back at full health moving forward and will have the opportunity to play complimentary football to a dominant defense.
The Steelers play four of their next five games at home and also play a division rival in the Cleveland Browns. The magic win number for the Steelers to get back to the top of the north is five. If they can win 5 of their next 6 games, then they will be at 6-4 and will back on top of the AFC North going into December. They have two excellent matchups at home in November against the underperforming Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions that they must win. They also have to win this weekend against an injury ridden Denver Broncos squad. This leaves us with the aforementioned Browns, Sunday Night Football against the Seattle Seahawks and a trip out west to play the Los Angeles Chargers.
Now, you don’t have to be a math wiz to figure out they have to steal two games that they will likely be favored to lose. I expect them to bring their “A-game” when they travel to Cleveland and revenge their ugly loss in the 2020 AFC Wild Card round. The Steelers have a record over .700% in primetime games under Tomlin at home and should be able to create pressure on Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson with a great pass rush and a hostile environment. If they can win the turnover margin, then they stand a great chance to steal a game at home on Sunday night and hit our magic number of five. This is clearly asking a lot of a team that hasn’t performed well all season, but as I previously mentioned, if they just can rely on their defense and protect the ball, then they will likely come out of most stadiums ahead.
2. AFC North Regression
Outside of the Steelers, the AFC North is currently a combined 9-3. It’s highly unlikely that the Steelers AFC North cohorts are able to maintain a .750 win percentage over the next two months, especially with injuries and increases in schedule difficulty. Below I will predict the best case scenario for Pittsburgh for each AFC North team.
Browns: This is the first team I expect to take a significant step back in the coming months. They have taken advantage of inferior opponents and have won games they were supposed to win. To put it in perspective, the Steelers have played four games against opponents who have a combined record of 12-4. The Browns opponents have a combined record of 5-11. Yes, I understand they have still won, but most of their wins have looked ugly. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has also admitted he’s dealing with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder that will likely nag him the entire season, so there’s a good chance he misses some time if he’s unable to properly manage the injury. The Browns have to travel to the Chargers this week and then have to play the Arizona Cardinals and Broncos in back-to-back weeks which is one of the toughest stretches in the NFL. The Browns are likely to lose four of their next six which would put them at 5-5 and a game behind the Steelers at Thanksgiving.
Bengals: The Bengals have perhaps been the biggest surprise in the NFL over the first month of the season. To their credit, they have improved a lot of the past few years, but they still are a team that will lose a lot of games over the course of an 18-week season. The Bengals schedule is not nearly as difficult as the rest of the AFC North over the next two months, but there are a lot of games that one key mistake could lose them the game. The Bengals are historically bad in one-score games (2-11-1 under head coach Zac Taylor) and only need a few plays to go against them in order for them to drop below .500% by Thanksgiving. If the Bengals win more than two games over the next two months, then you can say I’m wrong, but I don’t see them being better than 5-5 by the time they meet the Steelers on November 28th.
Ravens: The Ravens are the only team that may stand in the way of the Steelers reclaiming first place. The Ravens have stolen two games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Lions that they should’ve lost, so let’s hope the pendulum swings in their opponents favor and they drop some games they should win. The Steelers don’t get to play the Ravens until December, so there’s no way the Steelers can get two games back on the Ravens. They’re going to have to rely on the rest of the NFL to help them out, which is a tall task. The Ravens are likely to be favored in every game they play over the next two months, but all it takes is one key injury and the Steelers could leap frog them in the standings and be looking down on everyone going into the final stretch of the 2021 season.
It’s clear that this is going to be an upward battle, but crazier things have happened. It all starts upfront with the Steelers winning and that’s not going to be possible if the offense can’t protect the ball. If the offensive line can begin to gel and Ben Roethlisberger can protect the football and let his skill guys be playmakers, then they can easily win five of the next six games. However, if the offense can’t figure it out and continues to put the defense in bad positions, then it won’t matter if the rest of the AFC North performs how we outlined above. One thing we know is that the Steelers have a Hall of Fame quarterback and coach, so if the stars align, then there’s every reason to believe this team will be in first place by Thanksgiving.
Do yinz think the Steelers have what it takes to get back to first place in the division? Click to comment below!