After much sound and fury, the Pittsburgh Steelers have qualified for the AFC’s sixth seed as a Wild Card in the 2015 playoffs. Numerically speaking, four wins is all that separates the Pittsburgh Steelers from the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl Championship.
With that, we give you 4 Steelers who must step up to pull Pittsburgh through the playoffs.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
This first entry might come as a surprise, but it comes first for a reason. Ben Roethlisberger can’t win a seventh Super Bowl for the Steelers all by himself, but there is no way Lombardi number seven finds its way to Pittsburgh this season without a strong post-season from Ben Roethlisberger.
Since the middle part of 2013, it has generally been accepted inside Steelers Nation, and to a lesser extent outside of it, that Ben Roethlisberger had finally taken his place alongside the elite quarterbacks of the league such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.
- Ben Roethlisberger’s statistical success in terms of passing yards and such, is the most often cited state to state this case.
But more disciplined play is the real reason for Roethlisberger’s success. Todd Haley found a way to harness Ben Roethlisberger’s swashbuckling style of play in a way that resulted in greater efficiency and economy. Yes, having weapons like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell has helped, but to chalk up Roethlisberger’s improvement to a better supporting cast does a disservice to both Roethlisberger and Haley.
- Lately chinks in Roethlisberger’s armor have begun to show.
Fortunately, Ben’s sack totals remain stable, but the “stupid interception” has returned to his game. Perhaps he’s trying to force the ball to Antiono Brown too much. Perhaps he’s actually become too comfortable with Todd Haley.
- Neither explanation really matters.
In quantities terms, Ben Roethlisberger’s 2015 interceptions per-attempts rate is 3.4%. That’s a 26% increase over his career average of 2.7% and his worst mark since the 2006 season. Since the Steelers bye week, Roethlisberger has thrown multiple interceptions in 4 of 6 games.
In qualitative terms, the interceptions Ben Roethlisberger threw in the Broncos game, Ravens game, and the Browns game were of the Kordell Stewart variety – this this comes from someone who defended Kordell tooth and nail during the “My buddy’s the cop… phase of Kordell Stewart’s career.”
Even the best quarterbacks will throw interceptions. Terry Bradshaw’s career is a testament to that reality. His career interception percentage was 5.4, and in only one of the Super Steelers four championship seasons did Bradshaw’s pick percentage drop below Roethlisberger’s 2015 number. Moreover, Ben Roethlsiberger’s interception percentage in 2005 was… 3.4.
- Might Steelers Nation take that as a good omen?
Not on your life. Ben Roethlisberger simply must be more disciplined, much more disciplined with the ball if the Steelers are to go anywhere in the playoffs.
Wide Receiver Martavis Bryant
People forget, but during the first 1/3 of the Steelers 2014 season, critics decried the Steelers offense as “horizontal.”
That changed with a bang with Martavis Bryant entered the lineup. The during the later half of 2013, the Steelers showed that with Roethlisberger, Brown, Bell and Heath Miller, the Steelers offense could be good. Bryant’s entry into the lineup was supposed to make the Steelers offense lethal in 2015.
- And fortunately, Steelers Nation has seen flashes of that.
Against the Arizona Cardinals, Martavis Bryant took simple slant pattern pass from Landry Jones and transformed it into a 88 run that sealed victory over one of the NFC’s toughest teams. In the simple span of the Steelers victory over the Colts through the Denver game, Bryant caught 21 passes for 250 yards. To his credit, Bryant’s also had some success in drawing pass interference penalties.
- But Bryant has made more highlight reels of late for the plays he hasn’t made.
Too often he’s failed to contest catches. Other times he appears to be out of synch with Ben Roethlisberger. And he’s had way, way too many drops. Bryant closed 2015 with two one catch games.
Markus Wheaton has stepped up his game and proven that he can be a viable option when Antonio Brown can’t get open. But Wheaton hasn’t done enough to make defenses fear him. That’s supposed to be Bryant’s void to fill. Against the Browns, the Steelers were concerned enough about Bryant’s reliability that they replaced him with Darrius Heyward-Bey (for the record, the claimed Byrant was sick).
Regardless of whether it is in sickness or in health, the Steelers won’t go far in the playoffs if Hewyard-Bey has to replace Martavis Bryant often.
Outside Linebackers Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and/or Arthur Moats
OK, that is squeezing three players into a list of our key Steelers who need to step up. But the point remains the same: The Pittsburgh Steelers have invested a lot of their personnel capital in outside linebackers, and do not have much to show for it.
During the Dick LeBeau era (and to that end we’ll include the Jim Hasslett and Tim Lewis eras) the Steelers pass rush has lived and died with their outside linebackers. For that matter, much the same can be said of the Steelers pass rush following Chuck Noll’s switch to the 3-4 in 1983.
- Until Arthur Moats dropped Austin Davis on Sunday, the Steelers outside linebackers hadn’t gotten a ( meaningful) quarterback sack in weeks.
To his credit, Keith Butler has found ways to get pressure using Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, as well as in using his safeties and corners on blitzes. He’s also dropping his outside linebackers into coverage more often than happened under Dick LeBeau.
It says here that James Harrison can still make plays for the Steelers and he will do so if given the opportunity. But the Steelers can’t use Harrison as a full time starter during the playoffs. That means the pressure on the quarterback must come from Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and/or Arthur Moats.
If the Steelers defense is to have any chance of surviving the exposure to NFL playoff caliber quarterbacks in the post-season crucible, then Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats must get into the quarterback’s frequently and with unrestrained ferocity.
Special Teams Coach Danny Smith
Yes, Pittsburgh Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith isn’t a player, and can’t “step it up” the way, say, Jarvis Jones might.
The Pittsburgh Steelers special teams have a decidedly Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde history that has alternated with their special teams coach, and that has continued in the Mike Tomlin era. Bob Ligashesky was a disaster. Under Al Everest, the Steelers special teams make game-changing plays. Under Amos Jones the Steelers special teams struggled giving up a touchdown on a punt return and a blocked punt.
- Under Danny Smith, the Steelers special teams have never been a liability.
Yes, the punting game struggled in 2013 with Zoltan Mesko’s erratic performance, but that’s not Smith’s fault. It is time however, for junior to take out the car and do more than not dent the front fender.
The Steelers are going into the playoffs without DeAngelo Williams at full health, and with a defense that at its best is a “bend-but-don’t-break unit.” But when the defense pressures the passer, that forces turnovers, which helps the Steelers win. If Ben Roethlisberger steps it up and his receivers follow suit the Steelers can compete in the playoffs.
But this is Pittsburgh. Success isn’t measured in playoff appearances, playoff wins, or even Super Bowl berths. Pittsburgh measures success with Lombardi trophies.
If the 2015 Steelers are to bring home Lombardi Trophy number 7, they’re going to need an edge, and Danny Smith’s special teams must step up to provide that, whether that comes in the form of kick returns that impact the game, forcing fumbles on returns, downing punts at the one, blocking kicks or some other combination thereof.