Why the Steelers could be the AFC's best team
The Pittsburgh Steelers left themselves with a lot of work to do just to make the playoffs, but if they get there, they are a team that will terrify every other team in the AFC. They might be the best team in the entire conference right now, in fact, and it is almost entirely based on the play of one unit.
This offense has the ability to shred even the NFL’s best defenses, and for evidence of that you need look no further than Sunday’s win over the Broncos.
Coming into yesterday’s game, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris hadn’t allowed a touchdown in 36 straight games, dating back to Week 12 of the 2013 season. He hadn’t posted a game graded in the “red” (representing a poor game grade) at PFF since the same week, and had never allowed 100-plus receiving yards in a game. He was, and is, one of the league’s best cornerbacks, and he was taken to pieces by Antonio Brown, the NFL’s best receiver.
Denver more or less played one-on-one matchups with the Pittsburgh receivers: Harris covered Brown, Aqib Talib covered Martavis Bryant and Bradley Roby took Markus Wheaton.
Brown saw 15 targets when covered by Harris in this game, and he caught 14 of them for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
They were hammer blows at key times, as well, as the Steelers needed to mount a sizeable comeback in the game.
In truth, none of the Denver matchup master plan worked, it’s just that Harris was the player exposed most obviously and thoroughly.
Talib surrendered eight catches to Bryant on 11 targets for 75 yards. Roby gave up five catches for 48 yards and a touchdown to Wheaton on 10 targets, but also gave up five catches on five targets when he was covering anybody else.
This was arguably the NFL’s strongest trio of cornerbacks, and they were helpless against the league’s best group of receivers. Brown in particular hammered home the point that he is the league’s best wideout, and if you don’t get hands on him to disrupt him at the line, you have no chance. Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating in this game was 99.8 overall, but it was a nearly perfect 152.2 when targeting Brown, and no higher than 87.5 when throwing in the direction of anybody else.
Brown was our top-rated receiver coming into the game, and only increased the gap over second-place Julio Jones. He is now averaging 113 yards per game this season despite playing with a combination of Michael Vick and Landry Jones for five of them, and the best part about his game from a Pittsburgh perspective is that he is just one option.
If a team takes away Jones, the Falcons have nowhere else to go with the football. If a team does the same to Brown, Pittsburgh can turn to Bryant, who has a 178-yard game to his name this season. If they managed to contain both Brown and Bryant, there’s Wheaton, who stuck 201 yards on the Seahawks.
Denver was, and may still be, the league’s best defense, and it had no answer for the array of targets the Steelers can deploy. The same coverage unit that was able to blanket Green Bay’s receivers all game and give Aaron Rodgers no place to go with the ball even seven seconds into the play was torched from the get-go against Pittsburgh, and allowed Roethlisberger to pass the ball on average in just 2.26 seconds, quicker than his average this season and too quick for the Broncos’ talented pass rush to get to the QB.
The Steelers’ playoff berth is still not secure, but if they get there they may be as good as anybody thanks almost entirely to this offense. The Patriots, Bengals and Broncos should want no part of having to play this team in the postseason.