The Steelers 2018 season ended yesterday at Heinz Field with a 16-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, but today what feels more significant than how it ended with that win is why it ended with that win.
Beating the Bengals raised the Steelers' record to 9-6-1, but all that gets them is the distinction of being the team with the best record to miss these playoffs, because Baltimore defeated Cleveland to win the AFC North, and Indianapolis handled Tennessee to secure the sixth and final spot in the conference playoffs.
Over the next many weeks and months, there will be an avalanche of opinions and theories offered as to why the this season ended with no playoffs for the Steelers. Some will be based on statistics and others will be driven by emotion, and it will fall to Steelers President Art Rooney II to figure out what's what and then chart a course for the team to follow to address the pertinent issues during the offseason.
But that's for another time, for a time likely to come after much thought and consideration, as it should. Right now, though, there seems to me to be one thing that put the Steelers in the position in which they found themselves at the start of the Week 17 slate of games, and that thing is a major contributor in their season ending about a month prematurely.
Protecting the football is a non-negotiable element when it comes to winning in the NFL, and when a team compounds a deficiency in that category by not taking it away from its opponents, well, the degree of difficulty toward becoming a successful team over the coarse of a particular season increases exponentially. The 2018 Steelers weren't particularly fastidious when it came to protecting the football, but they were downright inept when it came to mitigating their turnovers with takeaways.
As this regular season approached Thanksgiving, the Steelers sat atop the AFC North with a 7-2-1 record fashioned largely on the strength of a six-game winning streak. But starting on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Steelers went into a tailspin in which they lost four of their next five games to bring them to the doorstep of their regular season finale needing help from the Cleveland Browns to defend their AFC North title and squeeze into the postseason.
All four of those post-Thanksgiving losses came in one-score games, and in those losses the Steelers were a combined minus-6 in turnover ratio, and in only one of those four were they as good as even in turnover ratio. Certainly, the giving away of the ball was a critical element in the losing, especially in Denver when one certain touchdown was fumbled through the end zone for a touchback and then a late opportunity to tie the game was thwarted by an end zone interception.
But as the season progressed and the Steelers' body of work expanded to give them a defensive identity, opponents had come to understand that taking risks wasn't necessarily all that risky against a unit largely incapable of making them pay the ultimate price.
This despite coming into the final weekend with 48 sacks, which put them third in the NFL, and that alone should have resulted in more takeaways because the opposing quarterbacks were being forced into regularly making quick decisions with the football that should have resulted in plenty of opportunities for interceptions, and with defensive players constantly around them while they were in the act of trying to throw the ball there should've been a high probability of strip-sacks that led to fumble recoveries.
But after generating no takeaways against the Bengals, the Steelers finished with 15, and four of those came in one late September game against Tampa Bay. A far more typical outcome was what happened at Heinz Field yesterday, when T.J. Watt forced two fumbles, one of which was a strip-sack, and the Steelers also got their hands on two or three of Jess Driskel's passes, only to finish with no takeaways for the fifth time this season.
As they had so many times previously, the Steelers were able to overcome their lack of takeaways, and the Bengals' injury-depleted offense was able to muster only a couple of field goals to complement their lone takeaway – an interception that Shawn Williams returned 58 yards for a touchdown – and so they escaped with that 16-13 victory.
Then with most of the 63,874 staying in their seats and many of the Steelers finding a spot on the field that provided a good view of the scoreboard, the final few minutes of Browns vs. Ravens took over Heinz Field. Down by just two points, the Browns looked to be driving toward a go-ahead field goal attempt, but the Ravens, who had come into Week 17 as one of only three teams with fewer takeaways this season than the Steelers' 15, put the Browns away, clinched the division title, and effectively closed the door on Pittsburgh's playoff hopes.
And it all happened via an interception by linebacker C.J. Mosley. Such is the power of a well-timed takeaway in the NFL.