Pittsburgh Steelers Remain Undefeated, But They're Far from AFC's Best

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 3, 2020

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree grimaces as walks on the sideline after being injured playing against the Baltimore Ravens during an NFL football game Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 19-14. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

A simple "scoreboard" response used to be the ultimate mic drop when it came to any sports-related activity or argument. Wins are wins, and victors shouldn't apologize for their success.

Context is important in all regards, though.

The Pittsburgh Steelers escaped Wednesday with a 19-14 victory over a depleted Baltimore Ravens squad. What looked like a blowout on paper was far closer and more difficult than it should have been. As such, Pittsburgh's 11th win comes across as a loss. 

"We make no excuses. We seek no comfort. We didn't play well tonight," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters after the contest.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger added: "I don't know. I don't want to make excuses. We just weren't goodgood enough at all. We won today, but it doesn't feel like it."

More importantly, Pittsburgh's undefeated record probably won't hold up against the AFC's best. 

Regular-season wins are great, and the Steelers have knocked down every opponent so far. But not all schedules and on-field performances are created equal. 

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So far, the Steelers have won four games against teams with records above .500, as have the Kansas City Chiefs. But two of the Steelers' wins came against the same Ravens squad they barely beat Wednesday even though Baltimore was severely depleted due to a COVID-19 outbreak. 

Plus, the depth found within the AFC will be difficult to handle.

Despite a single loss, the Chiefs are still the reigning Super Bowl champs with the NFL's best player under center. They have weapons galore with a juggernaut-like offensive approach. Kansas City deserves recognition as the NFL's best until it can no longer defend last season's title. 

The Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns could all be tough outs based on how they've played lately, too. 

The Titans and Browns can control games with their dominant running backs. Like the Steelers, the Colts feature a top-five defense and a veteran quarterback capable of putting them in the right situation. Buffalo's offense is on par with Pittsburgh's, and those two squads are heading toward a possibly season-defining matchup in Week 14. 

The Titans already had a chance to send their Week 7 contest against the Steelers to overtime, but the usually reliable Stephen Gostkowski missed the 45-yard field-goal attempt with less than 20 seconds remaining. The Browns will have a chance to redeem their Week 6 blowout when they meet the Steelers in Week 17 with a potential undefeated regular-season record on the line. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Steelers still have games left against the Bills, Colts and Browns. If they lose any of them, the Chiefs will immediately leapfrog them as the AFC's top team. 

As Tomlin acknowledged after Wednesday's game, the Steelers weren't good against the Ravens, who were without quarterback Lamar Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews, wide receiver Willie Snead IV, fullback Patrick Ricard, center Patrick Mekari, defensive lineman Calais Campbell, outside linebacker Matthew Judon and running backs Melvin Ingram and J.K. Dobbins. Pittsburgh's inability to run the football, get into any rhythm with the passing game and allow third-string quarterback Trace McSorley to keep the game close until the end was appalling. 

Four major weaknesses surfaced in Pittsburgh's previously untarnished armor, but an injury to Bud Dupree should be the biggest concern moving forward. According to Mike Garafolo of NFL Network, initial tests indicate the star outside linebacker tore his ACL.

"He got hurt; he is being evaluated. I am sure I will have an update for you tomorrow," Tomlin told reporters

The 27-year-old veteran played as well this season as he has at any point in his career. If he's out for the rest of the year, offenses can concentrate even more on slowing T.J. Watt, who leads the league with 11 sacks.

As good as the Steelers secondary is, Terrell Edmunds tends to stick out like a sore thumb. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the most instinctive safety in football, and Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are opportunistic corners well-suited for Pittsburgh's coverage schemes, but Edmunds can be a liability at times. He'll take bad angles, miss tackles and fail in coverage. His poor angle and inability to identify the ball allowed Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown to score a 70-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter and keep the outcome in doubt. 

Offensively, the inconsistency of Pittsburgh's young wide receiver corps can be disheartening. They officially dropped five passes Wednesday, per Pro Football Focus, though the number might be generous because a number of tosses fell to the ground after hitting receivers' hands due to outright drops, poor adjustments or slightly off-target throws. 

When JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are dialed in, they're nearly impossible to stop. But up-and-down play comes with three wide receivers who are all 24 or younger. 

Roethlisberger didn't help his case, either. The Ravens took a different approach by playing coverage instead of throwing numerous pressure packages at the 38-year-old signal-caller. Baltimore blitzed only three times in the first half, per NFL Next Gen Stats, which helped slow down the Steelers' quick passing attack.

Pittsburgh uses the passing game as an extension of the run game because its running backs aren't productive. The Steelers entered Wednesday's contest with the league's third-worst rushing attack, and they didn't help matters with a 68-yard performance against the Ravens. With James Conner on the COVID-19 list, Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. combined to average 3.6 yards per carry. 

Don Wright/Associated Press

As a result, Roethlisberger was forced to throw the ball 51 times. In fact, the veteran has thrown at least 42 passes in five of the Steelers' last six games. 

Injuries, especially among Pittsburgh's front five, don't help matters. But at this point of the season, all teams are injured to some degree. The Ravens were obliterated this week due to injuries and COVID-19, yet they continued to compete. 

An 11-0 team shouldn't be this easy to pick apart. An undefeated record this late in the campaign typically indicates a dominant squad, but Pittsburgh is far from dominant and is ripe for an upset loss.

Once that occurs, the AFC's true top squads will assume their position atop the conference. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.