Is This the Best Pittsburgh Steelers Team of the Big Ben Era?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystNovember 2, 2020

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks to pass against the Baltimore Ravens during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Steelers came into the 2020 season in relatively uncharted territory. For the first time since 2012 and 2013, the Steelers had missed the postseason in back-to-back seasons. With Ben Roethlisberger on the shelf most of the 2019 season, Pittsburgh won just eight games—tied for the franchise's fewest since 2003.

This is not an organization accustomed to mediocrity.

Well, the 2020 Steelers are many things, but mediocre isn't one of them. After downing the rival Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday to take a commanding lead in the AFC North, the Steelers are a perfect 7-0—the last remaining unbeaten team in the NFL.

Pittsburgh is more than just the best team in the division. A pretty compelling argument can be made that the Steelers are the best team in the NFL.

In fact, this may well be the best Steelers team of the Roethlisberger era.

Sunday's big win over the Ravens wasn't a stylish one, as the Steelers were outgained 457-221 and allowed a whopping 265 rushing yards. But Pittsburgh's league-leading defense made big plays when it needed to, sacking Lamar Jackson four times and forcing four turnovers, including a pick-six on the first drive of the game.

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As Allison Koehler wrote for Steelers Wire, Roethlisberger was the first to acknowledge that Sunday's win wasn't pretty.

Gail Burton/Associated Press

"It's not always pretty," Roethlisberger said. "But we find a way to get it done. I'm just so happy for these guys."

The 38-year-old quarterback also made a point of congratulating the defense for its big plays in the win.

"I'm just glad they're my defense," Roethlisberger said. "They're so much fun to have as a part of this game. They stepped up when they needed to."

Make no mistake: The defense is the engine that drives this Pittsburgh team. Led by one of the top contenders to win Defensive Player of the Year honors in fourth-year edge-rusher T.J. Watt, the Steelers entered Week 8 leading the league in total defense (286.3 yards per game) and sacks (26), ranked sixth in pass defense (217.5 yards per game), second against the run (68.8 yards per game) and sixth in points allowed (19.7 points per game).

Now, that run defense number will go up a fair bit after what the Ravens did in Week 8. But Pittsburgh's defense is as good as any in the NFL. There are difference-makers at all three levels, whether it's Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt up front, Watt and Bud Dupree at linebacker or Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson in the secondary.

This defense lost its best inside linebacker in Devin Bush to a torn ACL and hasn't missed a beat—replacement Robert Spillane had the Steelers' pick-six in Sunday's win.

The Pittsburgh offense may not be as formidable as the defense, but it's hardly a liability. The yardage numbers haven't been great—Pittsburgh came into Week 8 21st in total offense. But the Steelers ranked sixth in scoring entering Sunday's game, averaging 30.5 points per contest.

According to Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh's offensive line entered Week 8 a so-so 17th in the league in run blocking. But just three teams (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans) had been better in pass protection.

In his 17th NFL season, Roethlisberger may no longer be the mad bomber who threw for 5,129 yards and 34 scores in the long-ago days of 2018—especially after the elbow injury that ended his 2019 campaign two games in. The 241 passing yards per game that Roethlisberger was averaging entering this week would represent his lowest full-season output since 2008.

But Roethlisberger also isn't making mistakes with the ball, as he has just four interceptions and the highest passer rating (99.8) he's posted since 2014.

Even if Roethlisberger isn't the player he once was, he's still plenty capable of getting it done.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Roethlisberger has a deep and talented group of receivers at his disposal. JuJu Smith-Schuster leads the team in targets and catches after reeling in seven passes for 67 yards against the Ravens. Rookie Chase Claypool caught his fifth touchdown pass of the season Sunday and came into Week 8 averaging a gaudy 18.5 yards per reception. Diontae Johnson has taken a big step forward in his second season. Tight end Eric Ebron caught a touchdown pass Sunday and is building a rapport with Roethlisberger.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Steelers are hardly a one-dimensional team offensively, either. Running back James Conner is on pace to rush for over 1,100 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Youngster Benny Snell Jr. has shown he can handle a featured back workload if needed.

The Steelers may not have the offensive firepower of the Kansas City Chiefs, but they aren't that far off.

And that's the thing about these Steelers that's so impressive: They don't have a glaring weakness. They can run the ball. They can move the ball through the air. And they can most assuredly play defense.

This isn't the first time Roethlisberger has found himself at the helm of a formidable team. Far from it. In Big Ben's first season, the Steelers went 15-1, and the team has won 12 or more games five times since Roethlisberger took over as the starting quarterback.

There's also the whole winning the Super Bowl twice thing, if you're into trophies.

But this 17th iteration of the Roethlisberger-led Steelers may just be the best of the lot. A fearsome combination of talent and balance. If the offense isn't firing on all cylinders, the defense can pick up the slack. On the rare occasions when the defense falters, the offense can put 30-plus points on the board.

If there was any doubt that these Steelers were for real, it's been settled with wins over the Tennessee Titans and Ravens the past two weeks.

Now the question is whether this is the best Steelers team with Roethlisberger under center.