Football is often a game of surprises. Entering the 2020 season, nobody knew quite what to make of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The prevailing theory was that since they were in a very competitive AFC North, their success would be limited at best. Most predicted that the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson would dominate the division. Even with veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger set to return from an unfortunate elbow injury, and a seasoned head coach in Mike Tomlin, the Steelers remained one of the biggest question marks entering week one. After these last two impressive victories against the Tennessee Titans and the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers have improved to a commanding 7-0 record. Pittsburgh is this year’s pleasant surprise and is now the only undefeated team. Barring an absolute collapse, the Steelers are poised to make a playoff appearance.
So the question must be asked: Are they a legitimate threat or nothing more than a feel-good story? For my money, Pittsburgh is not only a force to be reckoned with, but is the team most likely to dethrone the defending Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. They are certainly not the best matchup in terms of talent (I would reserve that description for Baltimore), but their defensive capability and strong leadership should scare Chiefs fans and create a great deal of intrigue come this January.
We have all heard the classic football cliché “defense wins championships.” Although overused, it is still true. In the age of high-scoring teams, it is easy to forget that defense can sometimes be the catalyst of a championship team. Take, for example, the Steelers of the 1970s who were led by the “Steel Curtain” — a group of elite defensive lineman such as “Mean” Joe Green and Dwight “Mad Dog” White. With the help of the Steel Curtain, Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls and solidified a dynasty. This season’s Pittsburgh defense has been excellent. In no way am I daring to equate this year’s Steelers’ defense to the legendary Steel Curtain, but it is important to highlight the impact an exceptional defense can have on a team’s performance. So far in 2020, the Steelers’ defense has ranked in the top five in terms of fewest yards allowed per game and has the second most takeaways per game. Players such as cornerback Joe Haden, defensive end Stephon Tuit and linebacker T.J. Watt, have all contributed to Pittsburgh’s undefeated start. This past Sunday against the Ravens, the defense held Lamar Jackson’s dynamic offense to only seven points in the second half. Championship football can often be built on strong defense, and so far this season the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense has proven to be instrumental.
Another factor that may separate Pittsburgh from the competition is the team’s unique leadership within the AFC. Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger are both former Super Bowl champions. They have both had their fair share of playoff successes and failures, and they know what it takes to win in January. They have experience, and experience matters. The AFC is a relatively young conference. The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen are still unproven. Ben Roethlisberger, on the other hand, is a wily veteran who has “been around the block.” Theoretically, if he and the Steelers can win a playoff game or two, they will be set up to face Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs, the only other team with a real playoff pedigree in the AFC championship. Is Pittsburgh as talented as Kansas City? Not at all. But is it possible that its solid defense and seasoned veteran quarterback can find a way to squeak out a win? Absolutely. 2020 has been a year full of surprises, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a chance to be one of the year’s best sports stories.