PITTSBURGH — You would think a team that continues to find ways to win would be the feel-good story of the NFL — especially with all the fourth-quarter comebacks, defensive stands and games almost always coming down to the very end.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have scratched and clawed their way to a 6-3 record. They’re a game from the AFC North lead and are solidly in the playoff race heading into Sunday’s showdown against the Cleveland Browns. But what do they have to show for it?
Little but hate and skepticism.
The Steelers have routinely been labeled as frauds and phonies and are a constant punchline of a national narrative about being just a product of veteran coach Mike Tomlin’s leadership.
LeBron James has taken a dig at the Steelers. Television analysts like Ryan Clark — a former Steelers safety — have as well. Same for talking heads like Stephen A. Smith and Colin Cowherd. Even unknown “betting expert” Steve Fezzik recently referred to them as “frauds” on the “Ross Tucker Football Podcast.”
To borrow an oft-used line from Tomlin: “We do not care.”
But veteran defensive end Cam Heyward, the most tenured player on the team and the face of the organization, does. He has had enough of the disrespect.
Heyward made that known on his “Not Just Football” podcast recently. Friday, Heyward doubled down on the lack of respect being shown to the Steelers.
“I love LeBron but man, stay away from football, my guy… 6-3 is 6-3. For me personally, ‘pretty’ is overrated.”
New episode out in the AM – subscribe now: https://t.co/ITOX0QIe2u pic.twitter.com/AmDA324Rwo
— Not Just Football (@NotJustFootball) November 15, 2023
“Who are they judging?” Heyward said. “They’re not in this. Smoke and mirrors? Screw you. We worked too hard for this. These guys dedicate their lives. We try to be a good defense. Smoke and mirrors, I think that’s a cloud of smoke.”
You can understand Heyward’s displeasure over people taking potshots at his team.
Sure, the Steelers might not be pretty to watch, but they are getting it done with the league’s best turnover margin. They are giving up a lot of yards (third most in the NFL) but not points. Up until two weeks ago, the offense couldn’t get out of its way, leading the league in three-and-outs.
But it has started to turn around.
Six stats behind Steelers’ improbable 6-3 record: Takeaways, red zone, fourth-quarter Kenny
Their last two opening drives have resulted in touchdowns. They are running the ball at a clip of nearly 200 yards per game, and their defense has turned away opponents at the end of games time and time again with its bend-but-don’t-break mentality.
Tomlin has preached throughout his career that style points don’t matter, and this team is the epitome of that Tomlinism.
“It doesn’t matter,” T.J. Watt said. “Nobody is going to remember in 10 years what the scores were. It is all about wins and losses. Each and every week, we are just trying to get the job done. It is not saying that we aren’t trying to get style points, but we understand that there is so much good football left in the tank for us. We aren’t trying to peak right now but we are continually trying to trend in the right direction.”
T.J. Watt pic.twitter.com/PTQ9set6wO
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) November 17, 2023
The Steelers view their lack of style points differently.
They are in the thick of the playoff race without having hit their stride yet. They have dealt with a multitude of injuries from Heyward to Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pat Freiermuth to both inside linebackers (they are starting guys named Mykal Walker and Trenton Thompson against the Browns) to an offense that has seemingly found an identity.
How the Steelers are preparing to fill a gaping void at inside linebacker
The outside narrative surrounding the Steelers might be that they’re phonies, but that’s not how they view themselves.
“I have been in the league a long time and I understand that November separates the pretenders from the contenders,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “If you want to be that playoff team, be that championship-caliber team, this is the time you separate yourself.”
Does it matter how they win? It shouldn’t — but it has.
The Steelers are 48-22-2 over the last seven years in one-score games, yet that’s looked at as a problem and not a sign of strength. It could be somewhat related to 2020 when they started 11-0 and many at the time called them the worst 11-0 team ever. They won just one of their final five games to sneak into the playoffs and were then trounced at home by the Browns.
Last year, the Minnesota Vikings went 13-4 with 11 of their victories one-score games. Their four losses were all by double digits. It resulted in a quick exit from the playoffs with a 31-24 defeat to the New York Giants.
“You’ve got to win at all costs in this game,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “That’s all I truly care about. Of course, you want to light up the stat sheet, but as long as we get the wins, I’m OK with that. I sleep well with getting a win. So, keep pushing, keep having that mindset, stay together as a group and we’ll be alright.”
The Steelers are 30th in the league in yards, 27th in points and tied for 25th in yards per play. They haven’t gone over 400 yards or 30 points in close to 50 games now, and Pickett has just six touchdowns and is completing only 61 percent of his passes.
But the Steelers don’t turn the ball over and rely on their run game and their defense. In modern football, that’s considered boring and unsustainable. Yet, here they are tied for the fifth-best record in the league, and they have a favorable schedule on the horizon — at least when it comes to the quarterbacks they’ll face.
They take on backups Dorian Thompson-Robinson (a rookie) and Jake Browning (and his 15 career passing attempts) the next two weeks followed by Kyler Murray, who is just coming off injured reserve, and potentially backup Bailey Zappe after that. Gardner Minshew was supposed to back up Anthony Richardson in Indianapolis all season but is the starter due to an injury.
After that, they have Browning again before finishing up with Geno Smith and Lamar Jackson.
So, if you think that smoke is thick now, check back in a couple of weeks.
“We understand that we are still scratching and clawing at the surface,” Peterson said. “There is so much football to play, a lot of good opponents in front of us to see what we have and what we can learn from in those first eight games.
“As Coach says it best each and every week, our business is winning, and we are winning.”
(Photo of Cam Heyward: Philip G. Pavely / USA Today)
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