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Are the Steelers Contenders or Pretenders?

The Steelers are on a four game winning streak, will they keep it up?

(I do not own this photo)

Photo Credit

Ah yes it is that time of year again and I’m not talking about the holiday season, I am talking about second half football. With the 23-16 defeat over the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, the Steelers stayed atop the AFC North. The Steelers have been hot lately. Offense and defense are finally complimenting each other on the field and the “Fire Tomlin,” crowd seems to be hiding. Have the Steelers done enough to be contenders?

Defensively, the Steelers have improved substantially. Weeks 1-4, the Steelers averaged 420.5 yards/game (304.75 passing and 115.75 rushing) and gave up 29 points/game. Weeks 5-8, they averaged 275.25 yards/game (210.5 passing and 64.75 rushing) and gave up 18 points/game. They gave up 20+ first downs in every game weeks 1-4. They improved and gave up less than 20 first downs in three of the last four games they’ve played. Those are significant differences.

The Steelers’ opponents third down conversion percentage is 37%, in other words offensively teams convert 4.6 third downs/game against them. Offensively you usually have 12 drives/game, the Steelers are roughly forcing fourth down around 8 times/game. The Steelers are averaging one turnover/game with five picks and four fumbles recovered. The Steelers have improved, but they still have some things to work on.

The Steelers defense averages 10 points/first half and 13 points/second half, most of those points coming in the first and fourth quarter. The second quarter saves the game for Pittsburgh. They average under three points/second quarter. It is rare to not see a red zone conversion percentage above 50%. The Steelers have a 53.6% red zone (touchdown) conversion percentage (RZC), 3.5 trips/game. However, their last three games the Steelers RZC is 75%. On the plus side, they’re still ranked in the top half of the league and this is actually an improvement from last season’s percentage which is 65.91%.

Here is why they struggle, offense cannot get it going in the second half. They average 16 points in the first half and 12.5 points in the second half offensively. Let’s look at the comparisons:

Offense vs Defense points/quarter

Through 8 games

1st Quarter

Offense (O): 3.2

Defense: (D): 7.2

2nd Quarter

O: 12.6 (Best in the league)

D: 3

3rd Quarter

O: 6.6

D: 5

4th Quarter

O: 6

D: 8.4

Despite their struggles overall, I mentioned earlier the Steelers are finally complimenting each other on both sides of the ball. In their last 3 games, the defense has averaged about 5.3 points/4th quarter. Offensively, they average 8 points/4th quarter. Of their last four games, they have played teams that are in the top half of the league in points/4th quarter. Four of the six teams they played in eight games (twice against the Browns and Ravens) also rank in the top ten of the same stat line (Chiefs 15th, Ravens 28th). The second half of the season has been a major improvement.

The Steelers are currently holding the third spot behind the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. The Steelers lost to the Chiefs earlier in the year. In the Steelers next eight games, five of them are against current teams in the playoff picture. They host the Panthers this Thursday, the Chargers week 13, the Patriots week 15, head to New Orleans to take on the Saints in week 16, and host the Bengals week 17. They only face one of those contenders on the road. You’d think this would be a good sign, but the Steelers have struggled at home this season. They’re 3-0-1 on the road and 2-2 at home. If they mimic the first half, they will go 10-4-2, but I am leaning more towards 11-4-1 to end the year out. Will that be enough to secure the division and a first round bye?

A fourth of the year the Steelers were pretenders, another fourth, they were contenders. The Steelers have a top ten offense and two out of the next eight teams they play a top ten defense in yards/game and points/game. Offensively, one of the next eight are top ten in yards and points/game.

The Panthers are one of those teams defensively in the top ten. The Steelers and Panthers are similar on paper defensively. Offensively, the Steelers have the edge. I think if the Steelers continue to play the way they’ve been playing, they will win on Thursday.

The Steelers are hot on both sides of the ball and have played some decent competition this year. They’ve been fairly dominant the last few games, but not overall. This team is not a contending team yet, even though they look like the most organized team in their division. The Steelers have a tough schedule to end the year out. This Thursday may be the toughest test of the season so far for Pittsburgh and it is on a short week. There is a chance Le’Veon Bell may still show up will that affect the Steelers in any way? This team is known to be dramatic through a season and I wonder if Le’Veon Bell’s appearance will make or break their season. The Steelers can win-out, but I would say they need to get 11 wins for the division. The Steelers control their own destiny at this point. Are they contenders or pretenders? 

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