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The Steelers’ Unusual Path to 8-0 and What History Tells Us About the Road Ahead

By: Ethan D. Cooperson

For the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers, the path to 8-0 has been anything but smooth.

The team’s schedule has been rearranged due to COVID concerns, with three of the Steelers’ first eight weeks adjusted from the original slate. The result was an unusual sequence that saw Pittsburgh play four consecutive home games – unprecedented in any single season in franchise history – followed immediately by three straight on the road.

Baseball teams do this all the time, but in the NFL, no team had played a seven-game stretch like that since the 1976 Redskins. And no team had gone 7-0 over such games in more than 80 years. 

The sequence of Steeler victories was quite unusual – and the ending of each of the road victories was heart-stopping. The Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys each had the ball inside the Pittsburgh 30-yard line in the final 25 seconds with a chance to tie or go ahead – and none of them was able to produce a point. Those teams threw a combined six passes from inside the Steelers’ 30-yard line on their final drives, completing only one for a six-yard gain. Add in a missed field-goal attempt by Tennessee’s Stephen Gostkowski, and Pittsburgh escaped with three narrow victories and an 8-0 start.

After almost four decades as an also-ran, the Steelers’ franchise transformed into a powerhouse in the 1970s. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, Pittsburgh has won the most regular-season games among all teams (482) and tied for the most postseason victories (36, matched by the New England Patriots) and Super Bowl titles (six, also tied with New England). But the Steelers had never begun a season prior to this year with as many as eight consecutive wins.

Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw passes during Super Bowl XIII against the Cowboys.

Entering 2020, the only Pittsburgh team to win as many as seven games to open a season was the 1978 squad, which reached 7-0 before losing at home to the Houston Oilers. This was arguably the best team in franchise history, especially if postseason results are figured in. It is the only edition of the Steelers to win as many as 17 games, and its .895 winning percentage over the extended season is the best in team annals. They capped that season with a Super Bowl XIII win over Dallas, the league’s other marquee franchise of the 1970s.

The 1970s Steelers dynasty was laden with Hall of Famers, with players from almost every position group enshrined in Canton. The 1978 team had 10 starters go on to the Hall of Fame, including four skill-position players – QB Terry Bradshaw, RB Franco Harris and WRs John Stallworth and Lynn Swann.

This year’s team, on the other hand, has only one skill-position player who is already established as a likely Hall of Fame inductee. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, in his 17th season in the Steel City, ranks among the top 10 all-time in pass completions, yards and touchdowns as well as quarterback wins. Big Ben’s playing stats are certainly Hall of Fame-caliber and should be enough to overcome off-field issues from earlier in his career. And while the Steelers have some talent at wide receiver – particularly in the form of rookie Chase Claypool – no skill-position player apart from Roethlisberger is sure to be counted among the all-time greats.

Even more striking about the 2020 Steelers’ roster is that only two skill-position players who have played even one down for the team this season and/or are on the current roster were first-round draft picks: Roethlisberger – selected some 16 years ago – and tight end Eric Ebron, a Detroit draftee in 2014. Pittsburgh’s de-emphasis on skill positions in the first round of the draft is illustrated by the team’s 12 consecutive years without spending a first-rounder on a player who throws, catches or runs the football – that’s twice as long as any other team has gone without such a pick.

All but the four teams listed above have taken a skill-position player in the first round within the last four years – yet the Steelers have gone a dozen years without one.

A glance at the team’s first-round picks by position since 2009 reveals a strong emphasis on the defensive front seven.

The plan seems clear: build the team from the trenches out, with a mainstay at QB – and add the skill players later in the draft. Since 2009, Pittsburgh has gotten tremendous mileage from wide receivers taken later in the draft, including 2009 third-rounder Mike Wallace and 2010 sixth-round pick Antonio Brown.

More recently, the Steelers have used a second- or third-round pick on a wideout in four consecutive years. Each of those players is on the team in 2020, and each has at least three TD receptions. All told, Roethlisberger has thrown 15 touchdowns passes to wide receivers – that’s the third most among all wideout groups this season.

Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt leads the league with 24 QB hits and 62 pressures.

And how has that defensive front turned out? Nothing short of a resounding success. In 2020, NFL teams pressure opposing passers on 36.9% of pass plays. The Steelers’ defense has a league-high pressure rate of 51.7%, and only Philadelphia (48.4) is within seven points of that figure.

T.J. Watt, the team’s 2015 first-round selection, leads the league with 24 QB hits and 62 pressures, part of a defense that that leads the league with sacks on 10.7% of opponent pass plays.

All that good feeling aside, Steelers fans got a strong dose of 2020 reality this week when Roethlisberger was forced to go on the reserve/COVID-19 list due to contact tracing. His status for Sunday’s clash with the Bengals is in doubt, possibly setting up a very unusual situation. In the last 60 years, only two teams with eight or more wins and no losses changed their starting QBs.

The 1985 Bears were 9-0 when they turned to Steve Fuller following an injury to Jim McMahon, and the 1998 Broncos at 8-0 replaced a banged-up John Elway with Bubby Brister – then went back to Elway after Brister won twice.

All ended well for the ’85 Bears and ’98 Broncos, as those teams went on to claim Lombardi Trophies. But over the last quarter-century, this has not been a trend, as only three of 17 teams since 1995 to start 8-0 ended up as Super Bowl champs.

The 2020 Steelers certainly have a long way to go before they can buck that trend and the more immediate concern in this week’s battle – with both the up-and-coming Cincinnati Bengals and COVID-19.

There’s also little doubt the ’72 Dolphins, who lost their great coach Don Shula earlier this year, will be cheering against them.

 

Research support provided by Jacob Jaffe and Sam Hovland.

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