3 Takeaways from Steelers' Week 15 WinDecember 20, 2021
3 Takeaways from Steelers' Week 15 Win
If you thought the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers were finished after losing three of their past four games, you were wrong. Sunday's victory against the nine-win Tennessee Titans was proof that Pittsburgh is still very much alive in the playoff race.
Once again, a late rally allowed Pittsburgh to get back into the game. That's been the trend for the Steelers this season, and like in Week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh battled back and held on for the win. The Titans made their own late push but were stopped on 4th-and-7 from the Pittsburgh 16-yard line. As it did for much of the game, Pittsburgh's defense came up big.
While the Titans were playing without star running back Derrick Henry, they are still formidable and a likely playoff team. Sunday's game was proof that if Pittsburgh can get into the postseason, it can be dangerous.
At 7-6-1, the Steelers are a long shot for a wild-card berth, but the AFC North title is within reach. Now a half-game behind the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers could steal the division if they win out. It's a tall order, but it's not impossible.
The Steelers aren't on the mat just yet. Here's what else we learned during Pittsburgh's 19-13 win in Week 15.
Slow Starts Are Now Part of Pittsburgh's Identity
In three of Pittsburgh's previous four games, the offense rallied in the second half to make things interesting. That resulted in a win against Baltimore and close losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings—so it obviously isn't a recipe for sustained success.
"We can talk as much as we want, but until we do it, we just have to expect that we need to come out and start faster," linebacker T.J. Watt told reporters following Week 14's loss to Minnesota.
Sunday brought another sluggish start, though, as Pittsburgh found itself with a 10-point first-quarter deficit and in another 10-point hole at halftime. While the offense did produce 103 yards in the first half, it had only five first downs and went 0-of-5 on third down.
Pittsburgh's first-half field goal came after a Titans fumble at their own 36-yard line.
To be fair, the offense wasn't much better in the second half and was lifted by three second-half turnovers (two in Titans territory). That doesn't change the fact that slow starts have become a problematic trend.
The Steelers have a tough schedule remaining—at the Kansas City Chiefs, against the Cleveland Browns and at the Baltimore Ravens. If they can't figure out how to hit the ground running, they are not going to make the playoffs.
Najee Harris Is Still Struggling to Find Running Room
Part of Pittsburgh's problem offensively has been an inability to sustain the ground game. Drafting Alabama running back Najee Harris 24th overall was supposed to fix the problem, but it hasn't. Pittsburgh's rebuilt offensive line has struggled to open holes, and Harris has struggled to identify open lanes.
Harris has been terrific as a receiving back and has 62 catches on the season, but he's been average as a runner. He came into Sunday averaging a modest 3.7 yards per carry and rushed for just 18 yards on 12 carries against Tennessee.
Again, this is a two-part problem, as Harris came in averaging 1.8 yards before contact and 1.9 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Reference. AFC North foe Joe Mixon, by comparison, came in averaging 2.3 yards before contact and 2.0 after.
An improved offensive line may help unlock Harris' potential as a runner, but that's a luxury Pittsburgh isn't going to find over the final three weeks. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada will have to find ways to augment the ground game—runs by Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool helped Sunday—if the Steelers are to field a balanced offense in the final stretch.
If Pittsburgh Makes the Postseason, T.J. Watt Deserves MVP Consideration
If the Steelers do make the playoffs, it's going to require more defensive performances like the one Sunday. Should that happen, Watt will deserve MVP consideration.
It's not going to happen, as MVP has become an offensive- and largely a quarterback-focused award. Adrian Peterson was the last non-quarterback to win the award, and that happened in 2012. The last time a defensive player was named MVP was when Lawrence Taylor won in 1986.
Watt has been outstanding this season, though, and he was great again Sunday. Against Tennessee, he finished with 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits, four tackles and a fumble recovery.
With 17.5 sacks on the season, Watt remains the league leader.
Watt is one of the rare defenders who can take over a game. In addition to his 17.5 sacks, he has four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, 17 tackles for loss and 40 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Reference.
With three games remaining, Watt has a shot at the all-time single-season sack record, which Michael Strahan set in 2001 with 22.5. Notching 5.5 sacks in three games is not an unrealistic goal for Watt, and if he becomes the new record-holder, he could well garner some MVP votes.