"We need more detail in our play."
Mike Tomlin said other things, but that was the main theme during his postgame press conference following Pittsburgh's Week 4 loss to Green Bay. The loss, Pittsburgh's third in a row, left the Steelers at 1-3 and in last place in the AFC North division.
Fast forward a month, and the Steelers are currently 5-3 and just a half-game game back of the Ravens, who lost to the Dolphins on Thursday night, for first place in the division. With a win over the winless Lions this Sunday, the Steelers will strengthen their chances at making the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Not bad for a team that many left for dead not even a quarter into the campaign.
Let's take a look at how Tomlin and the Steelers turned their season around, along with what they will need to do in order to keep their momentum rolling during the second half of the season.
Tomlin's main point of emphasis in Green Bay has been largely addressed in recent weeks. They're not perfect (as evidenced by Ray-Ray McCloud's fumbled punt that resulted in a Bears touchdown on Monday night), but the Steelers are executing at a much higher level than they did during the season's first four weeks. And while they took a few steps backward on Monday night, the Steelers' offensive line has seen significant improvement in recent weeks. That improvement led to Ben Roethlisberger being sacked just four times during Pittsburgh's wins over Denver, Seattle and Cleveland after he was sacked 10 times during the season's first four games. It also contributed to Najee Harris' first 100-yard rushing performance in Pittsburgh's Week 5 win over Denver.
More attention to detail has also been evident on defense. Tomlin publicly challenged his defense to sharpen its tackling after his unit struggled to do so during the second half of its win over Seattle. Pittsburgh's defense responded with a much better outing the following week in Cleveland.
Tomlin also cited his team's lack of big plays during his Week 4 postgame presser. Since then, the Steelers' offense has produced several splash plays that include Diontae Johnson's 50-yard touchdown against Denver, Johnson's 50-yard catch during Pittsburgh's final drive in Cleveland, Chase Claypool's 26-yard grab on a third-down play on Pittsburgh's first scoring drive against Chicago, and James Washington's 42-yard catch later in that game that set up the Steelers' third touchdown.
Pittsburgh's defense has also created its share of splash. Three examples are James Pierre's game-clinching interception against Denver, Joe Schobert's forced fumble in Cleveland and Cam Heyward's head-turning interception against Chicago.
Including punter Pressley Harvin III, the Steelers are starting five rookies that include four on the offensive side of the ball. Each rookie has shown significant signs of growth since the first quarter of the season. While he still has room to grow, left tackle Dan Moore Jr. has done a solid job protecting Roethlisberger's blind side. His run blocking has also shown vast improvement over the past month. The same can be said of rookie center Kendrick Green.
Pittsburgh's top two picks in last year's draft, Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth, have been critical parts of the offense. October's Offensive Rookie of the Month, Harris is currently eighth in the NFL with 830 total yards from scrimmage. While his numbers are impressive, Harris' production will only get better as he continues to build cohesion with his offensive line.
Freiermuth, the second tight end selected in the 2021 draft, has seen his role in the offense increase following JuJu Smith-Schuster's season-ending injury. The former Penn State star has caught 16 passes and three touchdowns in Pittsburgh's last three games. His clutch catch on a fourth-and-goal situation in Week 8 helped the Steelers get their first win in Cleveland since 2017. Freiermuth followed that up with a two-touchdown performance against the Bears.
Improved offensive identity
In recent weeks, first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada has created more balanced play sheets that includes less throws from Roethlisberger and more carries for Harris and the Steelers receivers. After throwing 170 passes in Pittsburgh's first four games, Roethlisberger attempted 129 throws over the past four games. While he is throwing less, Roethlisberger is having more success. Roethlisberger has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions during Pittsburgh's winning streak after throwing as many touchdowns (four) as interceptions during the season's first four games. He's had an average passer rating of 106.3 over that span after having an average rating of 80 during the first month of the season.
With the line still a work in progress, the Steelers have manufactured runs with jet sweeps featuring their top three receivers. Of the Steelers' 105 yards rushing on Monday, 37 of those yards (on just six carries) were gained by receivers.
Winning possession downs
This was one of the other specifics Tomlin mentioned following Pittsburgh's loss in Green Bay. The Steelers allowed the Packers to go 9 of 15 on third downs. Green Bay's third-down success not only kept potential scoring drives alive, it allowed the Packers to control the clock for nearly 35 minutes.
Pittsburgh's third-down defense has seen dramatic improvement over the past month. They held the Browns to just 3 of 12 on third and fourth downs and the Bears to 6 of 17 on third downs. Not surprisingly, the Steelers held the time-of-possession advantage in both contests. In Cleveland, the Steelers held the ball for nearly 28 of the game's final 45 minutes after the Browns had possession for roughly 11 minutes in the first quarter.
The Steelers' defense is now eighth in the NFL in third-down, fourth-down and red-zone efficiency. Pittsburgh's formidable pass rush, led by NFL sack leader T.J. Watt, has been one of the main keys to Pittsburgh's recent third-down success. It also doesn't hurt that the Steelers have one of the league's most experienced cornerbacks in Joe Haden and one of the NFL's top safeties in Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Steelers' keys to a strong second half
Pittsburgh's schedule gets significantly tougher following Sunday's game against Detroit. Five of the Steelers' final eight games will be on the road. Seven of their final eight games are against teams with winning records. The Vikings, the only team that the Steelers will face that is currently below .500, will play host to the Steelers on a short week on Thursday night. The winning streak has given Pittsburgh a chance at securing Tomlin's 15th consecutive winning season and a possible playoff berth, but either of those things coming to fruition is hardly a given considering the back half of the schedule.
Continued improvements on the offensive line will be vital to the Steelers' late-season success. The Steelers' defense, which on Monday suffered a third late-game collapse during the four-game winning streak, desperately needs reinforcements on the defensive line. The return of Stephon Tuitt, whose knee injury has kept him sidelined through the season's first nine games, would be a big boost for the Steelers' defense.
The Steelers are sixth in the NFL in sacks, but over half of those sacks have been recorded by Watt. The Steelers will need more sacks from the rest of their defense, specifically from outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. Pittsburgh would also benefit from forcing more turnovers. The defense has just three interceptions this season and have forced as many turnovers (eight) as they have given up. A positive turnover ratio is always a good thing, especially in tight games late in the season.
Pittsburgh will also need to continue to receive solid play from Roethlisberger, whose play on the field over the past month has somewhat quieted some of the outside noise. As he has shown over the past month, Roethlisberger is still capable of helping lead the Steelers to wins. How well he and the offense plays in December and early January will likely determine whether or not the Steelers will have a chance to compete for the franchise's seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy when the 2021 postseason begins.