CLEVELAND – The Steelers are in the playoffs, and for that they deserve some credit. Credit for winning 10 games against what was the NFL's toughest schedule this season, as calculated based on their opponents' 2014 records. And credit for winning those 10 games despite a series of injuries that claimed a couple of first-team All-Pros on offense, the starting left tackle, and the quarterback for various lengths of time.
The final pieces fell into place for them yesterday afternoon, when the two outcomes they had to have became official within a few minutes of each other. They handled their business by beating the Browns, 28-12, and they got the help they had to have from the Buffalo Bills, who got to 8-8 in Rex Ryan's rookie season as their coach with a 22-17 victory that allowed the Steelers to replace the New York Jets in the AFC playoff field.
A couple of weeks ago, the Steelers had been proclaimed "the team nobody wanted to face in the playoffs." Today, that label most deserves to be hung on the Seattle Seahawks, but in the AFC it still could apply to the Steelers, provided they keep doing one of the things that characterized their victory over the Browns while eliminating an ugly characteristic they've developed during the fourth quarter of this regular season.
The Steelers defense is a unit that remains very much in transition, both in terms of personnel as well as in scheme as devised by first-year coordinator Keith Butler. This defense gives up a lot of passing yards, and it also has its problems on third downs, but what has allowed it to survive as part of a team good enough to make the playoffs is its ability to pressure the passer and take the ball away.
In 2014, Dick LeBeau's final season coordinating this defense, the Steelers finished with 33 sacks and 21 takeaways, including only 11 interceptions. This season, the Steelers finished with 47 sacks, their most since they had 48 in 2010, and 30 takeaways, including 17 interceptions, which was their most since they had 21 interceptions also in 2010. Of course, 2010 was a 12-4 regular season that included a division championship and a spot in Super Bowl XLV, and if these Steelers are to stay alive long enough in the tournament to approach matching that run, the defense is going to have to keep the sacks and takeaways coming.
Throughout this season, there were four games in which the Steelers failed to record a takeaway – at New England, at Kansas City, at Seattle, and vs. Baltimore – and they lost them all. Because the Steelers don't have the kind of dominant defensive talent that characterized the teams that won two Super Bowls and played in a third since 2005, pressuring the passer has had to verge on the creative as opposed to simply depending upon players to win the bulk of their one-on-one matchups.
Game action as the Steelers traveled to FirstEnergy Stadium to take on the Browns in Week 17.
Instead of being able to depend on 20-plus sacks from the outside linebacker positions as LeBeau often could, Butler has had to dig deep into his bag of tricks, as evidenced by the fact four different defensive backs had sacks this season while the four outside linebackers combined for 15. It's doubtful these Steelers are going to win games on the strength of their defense, especially now when the quality of the opponents increases, but these Steelers can lose games simply because their defense is allowing the opposing quarterback to get too comfortable.
There was no better example of that than the game against the Ravens on Dec. 27 when the Steelers rarely blitzed Ryan Mallett and he responded with the highest full-game completion percentage of his career. That luxury of comfort in the pocket never was afforded to Browns quarterback Austin Davis, who was presented with enough to worry about from the variety of blitzes Butler threw at him to throw two interceptions, including one to William Gay 1 yard deep in the end zone, and lose a fumble while being sacked by Ryan Shazier.
What cannot continue is Ben Roethlisberger's recent penchant for throwing interceptions, with the count now at seven in the final four games of the regular season. He threw two to a Ravens secondary that had only four in its first 14 games, and he threw two more to the Browns, who had nine interceptions in 15 games and were starting a backup safety at cornerback.
Every week, Coach Mike Tomlin recites some version of "protect the ball on offense and get the ball on defense" as being integral to a potential Steelers' victory, and the postseason should only accentuate that. It should accentuate that because today the status of Le'Veon Bell is a question, because he was forced out of the game here in the first half with an ankle injury of undetermined severity.
If Williams cannot play in the Wild Card Round, and with Le'Veon Bell already on the injured reserve list, the Steelers would be left with some combination of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman to serve as the running complement to Roethlisberger and the passing attack.
Their first opponent will be a familiar one at a road venue where they've had considerable success, and the Cincinnati Bengals will enter this postseason with questions of their own, the most pressing of which is whether quarterback Andy Dalton's broken right thumb will allow him the chance to break his 0-fer schneid as a starter in the playoffs.
The rubber match of the 2015 edition of Steelers-Bengals will happen at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, and what the first two games indicate about this third are that if the Steelers generate pressure on either Dalton or A.J. McCarron, they likely will create some takeaways as a result, which has been their formula for good-enough-to-win-with defense all season. Then it's just a matter of Roethlisberger and the offense not giving it away with turnovers.
Do that consistently for a few weeks, and these Steelers actually would be the team nobody wanted to face in these playoffs.