Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor is grabbed by Steelers safety Sean Davis in the first quarter. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)
Who envisioned this? At 4-5, after four straight losses, who’d have thought?
Not you, that’s for sure. Or me.
It’s hard to say what the primary catalyst is for this Steelers turnaround. One is undeniably the mediocrity of the NFL. Even the good teams aren’t very, well, good (see Giants, New York) and being .500 doesn’t mean you should be, or will be (see Bills, Buffalo).
The Steelers have won four straight. But have they really beaten anybody?
No matter. These next three weeks, they still won’t have to.
So, let’s keep this simple. The Steelers went from 4-5 to 8-5, mostly because of two factors: Sacks and red-zone defense.
The Steelers have 18 sacks during their four-game win streak. That’s an impressive total, especially considering that the Steelers had just 13 in the nine games prior and that their outside linebacker situation is so bereft of quality, they’re using a five-man rotation to fill two spots.
Going from very few to above average in the sack department has had big impact, especially considering the accompanying consistency of pressure.
The Steelers’ red-zone defense ranked best in the league before Sunday’s 27-20 victory at Buffalo.
True, the Bills scored twice on two possessions inside the Steelers’ 20. But the importance of the defense’s recent red-zone play is undeniable. Witness a goal-line stop last week vs. the Giants and two such stands the prior game at Indianapolis.
Rookies have stepped up on defense. Cornerback Artie Burns intercepted a pass Sunday. Safety Sean Davis parlayed a more aggressive role that sees him more often closer to the line of scrimmage into a sack-and-a-half at Buffalo.
Improved physicality on both sides of the line has helped, and will help even more with the weather getting worse.
The Steelers don’t come out flat lately: They have outscored their foes by a cumulative 29-0 in the first quarter of the last four games.
The Steelers’ offensive unit isn’t quite as advertised, averaging six points less than the hoped-for average of 30 per game.
But, Ben Roethlisberger’s three interceptions Sunday duly noted, that platoon is mostly playing well. Actually, Le’Veon Bell did a bit better than “well” against the Bills, gaining 298 yards from scrimmage (including 236 rushing, setting a single-game team record).
Bell didn’t score a touchdown in his first five games this season, but has seven in the past five. Those last yards are the hardest, and Bell is getting them.
Before Sunday’s action, the Steelers ranked 14th in the NFL in points scored, but were seventh-best in points allowed.
Is the Steelers’ defense really that good?
Probably not, because it ranked just 14th in yards allowed per game. But it’s improved, and may be as good as it needs to.
If the Steelers keep playing like they have these past four games, they will win out and win the division.
That four-game losing streak seems a million years ago. But its effects are undeniable. Instead of legitimately challenging for a first-round bye and home field throughout the American Football Conference playoffs, the most the Steelers can realistically hope for is the No. 3 seed and a first-round home date with the weakest wild card.
Prevailing local “wisdom” sees that as OK: All you need is a chance. A chip and a chair, in tournament poker parlance.
That’s nonsense. If the regular season was used to craft the easiest playoff road possible for the Steelers, that chance would be a lot better. The Steelers are too good to have lost four games in a row. But they did.
A division title and playoff berth isn’t assured for the Steelers. But it’s definitely the way to bet.
Beyond that, here’s something else to hope for: Roethlisberger and New England quarterback Tom Brady haven’t met in the playoffs since the AFC Championship Game following the 2004 season, Roethlisberger’s rookie year. That’s hard to believe given that the teams and quarterbacks have been concurrently very successful.
So, root for that: One heck of an exclamation point on a crazy Steelers season.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier in the fourth quarter. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)