There are a lot of things these Steelers aren't, and those have been documented weekly throughout this regular season.
They're not a very good run-stopping defense. To put numbers to that statement, since the sixth game of the regular season when Seattle rushed for 144 yards, the Steelers allowed 1,981 yards rushing over their next 12 games. That works out to an average of 165 yards per game. Four times, they allowed the opponent to rush for over 200 yards.
They don't do a very good job of getting off to fast starts offensively, which means they're behind often, especially early in games, and when they lose, they lose by a lot. The Steelers finished the 2021 regular season at a minus-55 in point differential, and they were one of two teams in the 14-team playoff format to finish with a negative in that category.
Their largest margin of victory in any individual game this season was a plus-12, when they defeated the Browns on Jan. 3 at Heinz Field, 26-14. On the flip side, they lost to Kansas City, 36-10; to Cincinnati, 41-10; to Green Bay, 27-17; and in their one-score loss to the Vikings, they trailed at halftime, 23-0.
But another thing the Steelers are in 2021 is a playoff team, because they have managed to learn how to deal with adversity within a game by gathering themselves and competing to the final whistle.
"But more than anything, I'm getting extremely comfortable just watching our guys smile in the face of adversity," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly news conference on Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "We're collectively getting comfortable in circumstances where we're most uncomfortable. We've been hardened by this process. It hadn't been an easy journey for us, we're getting comfortable with being in scenarios, and I think we see those scenarios clearly."
The scenarios to which Tomlin refers happened in just about each of the team's 18 regular season games, including the must-win finale last Sunday in Baltimore. The scenarios there involved the defense needing a stop in the fourth quarter after the Ravens drove into the red zone, and then getting what it needed when Cam Sutton intercepted a pass in the end zone.
Another of the scenarios involved needing a score in the fourth quarter to erase a 10-6 deficit, and then getting it when Ben Roethlisberger drove the offense 50 yards in 10 plays and made the play to allow the Steelers to take a 13-10 lead – a 6-yard touchdown pass to Chase Claypool.
And yet another of the scenarios came in overtime, when the Steelers took possession at their 17-yard line with 6:24 remaining and desperate to score to end the game because punting the ball back to a team employing Justin Tucker as its placekicker was a football version of Russian roulette. On that drive, Roethlisberger converted a third-and-7, a third-and-9, and a fourth-and-8 before Chris Boswell ended it with a 36-yard field goal that spelled a 16-13 victory.
"I think we're able to communicate in the midst of some of that," said Tomlin. "We're able to execute individually and collectively because of that experience. And so hopefully, that helps us as we proceed into the playoffs. We understand that the postseason is a different level, at least those of us who have been a part of it."
Another slice of adversity the Steelers have dealt with throughout 2021 is their youth, their inexperience. Of the 22 players who started against the Ravens last Sunday, besides Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward, the ones who qualified as "veterans" were guys such as Chuks Okorafor and Terrell Edmunds, neither of whom even have enough experience to have qualified yet for free agency. The others, as Tomlin often refers to them, either are new to the NFL or new to this team.
And as Tomlin mentioned, the playoffs are different. Besides Roethlisberger and Heyward, there just aren't many guys on the roster who have experienced the postseason in a Steelers uniform, and even fewer who have been a part of winning a playoff game while wearing a Steelers uniform.
"I'm not concerned about success. I am concerned about exposure, so that people understand what the environment is like and the intensity of it," said Tomlin about playoff experience. "How much detail is required particularly to win in situational ball and things of that nature. Experience is good, whether it's positive or negative, because it's the knowing. I'm less concerned about the lack of success. and I'm more concerned about those who haven't experienced it who play a significant role for us."
But that's where the Steelers are, and there's nothing to do about it between now and 8:15 p.m. on Sunday inside Arrowhead Stadium. There's nothing to be done about the Steelers inexperience, or the fact the Chiefs won the Super Bowl after the 2019 season and advanced to the Super Bowl after the 2020 season, with largely the same roster of players.
The Steelers will have to rely on the qualities that have served them throughout this season, not only because it has worked, but also because it's all they have.
"I can't say enough about the group, their buy-in, their fight, their selflessness," said Tomlin. "You're not in this tournament unless you're all of those things and then some. We don't think we're unique compared to the other 13 teams, but we are appreciative of what it is that we've had to do to be a part of this field. And we respect those we're competing against in the same way because we understand that this journey challenges all of us globally, in similar ways. I'm sure it hasn't been smooth sailing for any of the other 13 teams."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE:
"Arthur Maulet was evaluated for a concussion. We'll continue with that process and let the experts be our guide in terms of his availability and his practice participation during the course of the week. Najee Harris' elbow injury, he has been aggressive in terms of the treatment. It will slow him in the beginning portions of the week, and then we'll let practice participation and how he feels be our guide as we get closer to game time. Same with Robert Spillane and his knee. We're optimistic about all (three) of those guys that I mentioned. James Washington is still in the COVID protocol, and we'll allow the protocol people to determine his availability. Anyone who was limited or unavailable last week due to injury, such as Dan Moore Jr., have a chance this week and are scheduled to participate in practice starting Wednesday. We'll watch their (practice) participation and make division of labor decisions based on what gives us the best collection of people. Kendrick Green, the same thing. Kendrick's (issue this week) is definitely injury. He (also has) had COVID limit his availability. We'll put him in the mix as well and see what that looks like. I preface that by also saying we've been pleased with the work of J.C. Hassenauer at center, and so we've got some really good options there."