Why the Steelers could be the AFC’s best team

Pittsburgh's passing game looks borderline unstoppable now, following the Steelers' comeback win over Denver.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Dan

    This reminds me of the Packers Broncos game. Yes the Steelers O is definitely the best unit in the NFL, but they were made to look better thanks to poor game-planning. Singly up your #2 CB on the NFL best WR was a disaster waiting to happen. I know PFF has often confused CHJ with a true elite #1 CB, but he’s never been. He’s always been a good system CB. He’s at his best when playing zone or off coverage. When you ask him to just man up on a team’s best receiver, who feasts on off-coverage, your not putting him in a position to succeed. It’s one thing to shut down Randle Cobb or Ty Hilton, it’s another to cover AB.

    • shaunhan murray

      and put Harris on A player half a foot taller?Harris is great against smaller wide recivers and Brown is a small guy.Talib prolly would have done worse,at least Harris could follow Brown through most of his breaks.

      • The Mysteries of Bob

        Talib did awful against Hilton in the playoffs, he covers big guys way better.

        • shaunhan murray


    • Matt

      He shut down Cooper last week in a lot of man on matchups. and Coop has a few inches on him.

      • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

        for as good as coop is and will be in the future, he isn’t AB, nobody is. nastiest route runner this century

    • Stephen J Brady

      You must have not read the article.

  • crosseyedlemon

    I’m starting to worry about Sam. He picked the 49ers to beat the Bengals and now he’s drinking the Steeler kool-aid.

    • shaunhan murray

      It’s really good kool-aid.

  • Southwestern

    I feel like I should be paying extra to watch Ben and Tonio. One of the best pairings ever. If I were commissioner I would’ve given that coward Burfict a lifetime ban just for attempting to injure Ben’s knee.

    If Ben beat his chest more and “dabbed” (whatever the f&@k that is) he’d be much more revered. Too bad he’s just a man doing his job and making sure the deep out never dies. Nothing against Cam, SW Atlanta in here.

    • Jeff

      Don’t get me wrong, Ben is an amazing quarterback, would love to have him on my team. Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger is a giant piece of crap off the field. Which is probably why he is not as “revered” as he should be.

      • Joe

        You have the same wrong opinion as everyone else in the NFL, he made 1 mistake (which was never proven so we don’t actually know 100% what happened, although he definitely overstepped his boundaries) but he’s actually a really nice guy off the field. Making a bad judgement call does not make him scum, he gives back to the community, is great with the media, and a revered presence in the locker room. He wins with grace and doesn’t talk crap to the rest of the NFL even though he has every right to since he’s setting the league on fire.

        • gc83

          I agree. He’d lost with grace as well vs. Eagles where he couldn’t find the endzone. Class act!

      • Stephen J Brady

        Maybe if somebody said you raped someone it’d be true too. That’s pretty much what you’re saying, all accusations are automatically true. How’d that work for the Salem Witch Trials?

  • bigtrip

    I’ve been impressed by the Steelers’ OL.

    • Joe

      Same for me, very under the radar. In my opinion you could have the 5 best OL in the game together and they wouldn’t be top 5 in the league after 17 games. You need talent on a line but OL is all about camaraderie and knowing what the other guys are thinking/doing. This line has been coming together quite well, much better than our garbage line from 3 years ago.

      • Stephen J Brady

        Kinda like the Panthers?

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      yea, gilchrist is the best RT in football right now. haven’t seen von that overwhelmed in, well… ever.

  • Walt

    Agree on the Steelers passing game but their pass defense is abysmal. Osweiler couldn’t do jack against the Chargers (!) or Raiders but looked like the best QB in football in the first half against Pittsburgh. In the playoffs against someone like Brady, they will be overwhelmed. Not sure they can rely on winning shootouts every week.

    • Josh Knepshield

      You mean the same D that held the Cardinals to 13 points? The same D that kept us in every game we played without Ben? Oh yeah, and the same D that blanked the Broncos in the 2nd half? Our Defense is solid.

      • gc83

        That “D” put a hurtin’ on Philadelphia. I feel sorry for the league’s weaker teams.

    • Jay

      …and what did that abysmal Steelers defense do to the Broncos in the second half?

    • Joe

      Steel D has a bad pass defense due to injuries and lack of talent, you applied 1 half of football (which was the opening half of a game) and assumed that’s how it always plays. You can’t use half a game to form a general opinion or people will call you stupid. You’re stupid.

  • The Mysteries of Bob

    They can beat anyone but I am afraid they wouldn’t go to NE and beat the Pats, their spread offense goves trouble to PIT and the offense can’t really answer because they are always behind.

    • Larry

      They are the only team in the league right now that can go into Foxboro and beat the Pats.

      • Stephen J Brady

        Maybe in the AFC..

  • JudoPrince

    I hate teams in the playoffs that rely too much on the big play passing attack. Sure, it looks great in the regular season but as far as the playoffs, it’s just too easy to game plan around. I’ve seen it time and time again, especially against a team like the Pats who are masters at taking away your strengths. Don’t let this article fool you.

    • crosseyedlemon

      So your saying Brady would never consider trying to hook up with Gronk for a big pass play? Once a team is in the playoffs they have to go with what got them there. Any other approach not only lacks logic but is almost certain to result in failure.

    • Joe

      Steelers have one of the best big play passing attacks in the NFL, don’t get me wrong, but you obviously don’t realize that they don’t rely on it. Ben averaged 2.26 seconds to release the ball and had under 10 yards per attempt, the receivers make big plays and Ben takes a chance on Bryant beating the coverage deep frequently during games but their short passing attack is equally as good. If the pats can take away the Steelers’ strength which is their WR core I will admit defeat, I will recommend you rewatch game #1 of the season where AB beat the Pat’s #1 CB who essentially saved their SB chances last year.

    • Stephen J Brady

      Well, when you lose Leveon Bell it may mess up your balance. They still run the ball, I wouldn’t say they rely on the deep ball, they just trust their matchups downfield to.make a play.

  • gc83

    And that would of course make the Eagles the best in the league, right?Pennsylvania is sitting pretty right now…