The 2019 season was a major disappointment for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season within the first month, and a championship-caliber defense wasn't enough to carry the team into the postseason.
With a healthy Roethlisberger under center, things are much different in 2020.
The Steelers are the NFL's lone remaining undefeated team entering Week 8. This is largely due to the return of Big Ben, but again having an elite defense, the emergence of rookie wideout Chase Claypool and the re-emergence of running back James Conner have all played a role.
Pittsburgh currently ranks sixth in scoring, sixth in points allowed, first in total defense, 11th in rushing and third in interceptions with eight. In short, the Steelers might be the most complete team in football.
However, if the Steelers hope to earn the AFC's only playoff bye—a product of the new 14-team postseason format—they'll need to keep their winning streak rolling. Here, we'll examine a few keys to remaining undefeated with the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills among the biggest remaining tests on the schedule.
Keep Roethlisberger Healthy
This should seem like an obvious goal, especially considering how Pittsburgh performed without Big Ben in 2019. Though the Steelers had one of the league's best defenses, they ranked just 27th in points scored. The tandem of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges simply wasn't good enough at quarterback.
Roethlisberger has only been sacked eight times in six games, which is a testament to Pittsburgh's offensive line and the play-calling of coordinator Randy Fichtner. However, the Ravens and Bills are going to present challenges.
Baltimore has produced 22 sacks in six games and just added pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue to the mix via a trade. Former and new teammate Calais Campbell believes Ngakoue will have an immediate impact.
"The coaching staff here, the organization, they’re going to allow him to be himself and to flourish. So I feel like this is going to be a great place for him," Campbell said, per Jonas Shaffer of the Baltimore Run.
Buffalo isn't quite as prolific rushing the passer, but it has produced 17 sacks in seven games.
Continue Establishing the Run
While keeping Roethlisberger upright will be important, the Steelers have to continue running the football. Balance has been a big part of their offensive identity this season, and the duo of James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. has been more than serviceable.
This isn't to say that Pittsburgh's running game has been elite. While the Steelers rank 11th in rushing, they are just 16th in yards per carry. It's not hard to envision them moving to a pass-oriented approach if the running game isn't effective early against Baltimore or Buffalo.
Sticking with the run against Baltimore's 10th-ranked run defense will be key. Not only will it help protect Roethlisberger against the aforementioned pass rush, but it will also help the Steelers establish ball control and keep Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense off the field.
Against the Bills, the ground game may be the best way to attack. Buffalo ranks just 29th against the run and 24th in yards per carry allowed.
When the Kansas City Chiefs dominated Buffalo two weeks ago, they did so largely via the run.
Don't Let Baltimore Get Ahead Early
While the Bills will present a challenge, the upcoming game against Baltimore is the more important of the two contests. A loss would elevate the Ravens to the top of the AFC North and leave the Steelers chasing them in the playoff race.
If Pittsburgh is going to win, it needs to avoid getting down early. The Ravens have been a front-running team with Jackson at quarterback, and they've struggled to pull out wins when playing from behind; Jackson is 0-5 when the Ravens have trailed by 10 points or more at any point in a game.
This isn't just about trends, though. Baltimore's run-oriented offense is best when playing with a lead and trying to salt away the clock. If the Steelers can get up early, they'll be able to unleash T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and the rest of the pass rush on Jackson.
This is doubly important because with linebacker Devin Bush lost for the season, Pittsburgh's second-ranked run defense won't be at 100 percent.
If Pittsburgh can keep things close early, it will be able to dictate the game on its terms.