Ben Roethlisberger, for the 160th time in his career, got a win, tucking the game ball under his right arm after the Steelers rallied to defeat the visiting Texans on Sunday. In many ways, the 28-21 victory exemplified how the Steelers have rebuilt their roster to take advantage of Roethlisberger's golden years under center. While it wasn't perfect, Pittsburgh played complementary football when it mattered most, receiving big contributions in all three phases.
The Steelers are now 3-0 for the ninth time in franchise history. And while the Chargers, Giants, and Patriots bid adieu to their future Hall of Fame quarterbacks this past offseason, the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger, who, at 38 and a year removed from elbow surgery, is playing some of the best football of his career.
So how did the Steelers, despite losing several key pieces from their 2016 team that finished a game shy of the Super Bowl, get themselves back in this position so fast? Let's take a look.
Pittsburgh committed to improving its defense
If you're a fan of offense, the 2014 Steelers were the team for you. Big Ben tied Drew Brees for the NFL's passing title, while Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell had two of the best years of their careers. Pittsburgh had no issues scoring points, but opposing offenses also didn't have much trouble against a Steelers defense that finished 18th in the league in scoring, 27th in passing yards allowed and 28th in touchdown passes allowed. The Steelers also recorded just 33 sacks, an unacceptable number for a Pittsburgh defense. The result was a first-round playoff exit, as Pittsburgh's drought without a postseason win reached four years.
With their offense set up for the next several years, coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and the rest of Pittsburgh's staff decided to invest its first-round draft picks on defense. Starting with Ryan Shazier in 2014, five of the Steelers' last six first round picks have made significant contributions to Pittsburgh's defense. Linebackers Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, and Devin Bush are part of one of the best linebacker units in the NFL, a group that also includes veteran Vince Williams. Terrell Edmunds, the team's 2018 first round pick, has settled into his role as the team's starting strong safety.
While he wasn't a first-round pick, defensive end Stephon Tuitt has proven to be a force when healthy. Cam Heyward, a 2011 first round pick, has developed into one of the league's best defensive tackles. His worth was reinforced when the Steelers signed him to a multiyear deal just before the start of the season.
It wasn't overnight, but the Steelers' defense gradually developed into one of the league's best units. The acquisition of cornerback Joe Haden just before the start of the 2017 season took Pittsburgh's defense to another level, as did the decision to trade the 2020 first round pick to Miami to acquire free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Free agent signings Mike Hilton, Tyson Alualu and Steven Nelson have each made significant contributions to a unit that is currently fifth in the league in scoring, first in run defense and fourth in red zone efficiency. The Steelers have also tallied 15 sacks through three games, and, with Hilton's critical fourth quarter interception on Sunday, extended their streak of forcing at least one turnover to nine games.
Pittsburgh's defense is so good that it is now considered the strength of the Steelers. That's certainly not a bad thing, considering that was the case when Pittsburgh won two Super Bowls and three AFC titles with Big Ben under center. The current defense is good enough to have a similar run.
The Steelers found the right offensive pieces
While defense was the priority from 2014-19, the Steelers also focused on getting their offense complementary pieces that could possibly develop into future stars. Colbert, who might be the best executive in NFL history as it relates to evaluating receiving prospects, spent a second round pick on JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2017. Smith-Schuster was immediately a starter in Pittsburgh, bursting onto the scene as a rookie before winning team MVP honors in 2018. Smith-Schuster is now the team's No. 1 receiver entering his final year under contract.
That same year, Pittsburgh spent a third round pick running back James Conner, who also earned Pro Bowl honors in 2018 after averaging 113 all-purpose yards per game. Conner, after an injury-marred 2019, appears to be back on track after posting consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Both players are currently surrounded by talented teammates that include receivers Diontae Johnson (a 2019 third round pick) and James Washington (a 2018 second round pick), running back Benny Snell (a 2019 fourth round pick) and current rookies in receiver Chase Claypool and running back Anthony McFarland. While none of these players were at the top of their respective draft classes, this nucleus has given Pittsburgh arguably its best depth at the skill positions since Tomlin took the reins in 2007.
Pittsburgh has also armed Big Ben with two productive tight ends in Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron. On Sunday, the duo caught eight passes for 87 yards, with Ebron scoring his first touchdown as a Steeler.
While they've often been overlooked, the strength of Pittsburgh's offense has oftentimes been its offensive line, led by eight-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. While the unit isn't getting any younger, the Steelers' offensive line has been rejuvenated by the additions of Chukwuma Okorafor and Kevin Dotson. Both players were recently summoned to start when injuries sidelined starters David DeCastro and Zach Banner. Both players rose to the challenge, as Pittsburgh put up 410 total yards in its Week 2 win over the Broncos.
Pittsburgh may not have the stars that they once did, but they have given Roethlisberger vastly more options, which in turn has made him an even better quarterback.
They were willing to do 'un-Steeler' like things
Pittsburgh traditionally does not sign big name free agents. They also do not trade first round picks, at least they hadn't done so since the 1960s. Over the past several years, the Steelers decided to do some unorthodox things (for them) in order to give themselves the best chance to win now and in the future. So far, most of the gambles have paid off.
The signing of Alualu in 2017 was so good that the Steelers have been able to withstand the loss of defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third round pick who signed a long term deal with the Eagles this offseason. The signing of Haden was also a surprising move, considering that the Browns had essentially given up on him. But given Pittsburgh's cornerback situation at the time, the Steelers took a calculated risk, one that they are surely glad they took. The Steelers made a similar gamble when they signed Nelson, who was not offered an extension from the Chiefs after his rookie contract expired. Nelson was arguably the Steelers' most underrated player last season, as his presence helped Pittsburgh finished third in the league in pass defense in 2019.
Pittsburgh continued their recent trend of free agent acquisitions when they acquired Ebron, a 2018 Pro Bowler after catching 13 touchdown passes from Andrew Luck. While his stats aren't gaudy, Ebron has already made a significant impact in Pittsburgh, as Roethlisberger finally has the appropriate talent at tight end following Heath Miller's departure five years ago.
The Steelers' two biggest unorthodox decisions came in 2019. In the 2019 draft, Colbert traded the 20th and 52nd picks in that '19 draft and a 2020 third round pick to acquire Bush with the 10th overall pick. The pick was imperative, given that the Steelers had to upgrade at inside linebacker after losing Shazier late in the 2017 season. While the Steelers gave up quite a bit to get Bush, it wasn't as much as people think. While Pittsburgh did not have a second round pick in '19, they did have the 66th and 83rd overall picks after trading Brown to Oakland. Pittsburgh spent the 66th pick on Johnson, who has developed into a dangerous receiver and punt returner.
The Steelers regained their 2020 third round pick after receiving a compensatory pick following Bell's departure. Pittsburgh used the pick to select outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, who received eight defensive snaps on Sunday as well as partaking in 81% of Pittsburgh's special teams plays.
While Bush has quickly filled one of their biggest holes, the Steelers made an even bigger splash when they gave up their first round pick to acquire Fitzpatrick. At the time, many figured that Miami won the trade, as the Steelers were 0-3 and without Roethlisberger for the rest of the season. But in reality, the Steelers figured that, if they were going to be competitive, they would have to become a defensive oriented team. They quickly became just that after acquiring FItzpatrick, who took home All-Pro honors during his first season with the Black and Gold. He is now one of the main pieces of arguably the league's best defense.
Pittsburgh, like any good NFL team, has also relied on a little luck. How else would you explain the discovery of Chris Boswell, who earned the job as the Steelers' kicker after winning a tryout four games into the 2015 season, after Pittsburgh had lost a primetime game to the Ravens after its kicker missed two crucial kicks. A 2017 Pro Bowler, Boswell (who has made 34 of his last 36 field goal attempts dating back to last season) is just another reason why the Steelers are 11-5 in their last 16 games.
Where does this leave the Steelers now?
The Steelers, despite their 3-0 record, are still considered the third wheel as far as the AFC's top teams are concerned. In fact, the two teams that are considered above the Steelers in the AFC pecking order, the Ravens and Chiefs, capped off Week 3 on "Monday Night Football." While the Steelers should be considered a serious contender to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LV, they'll have to show that they can get past the Ravens and Chiefs. The Patriots also can't be overlooked, as Cam Newton has helped New England get off to a 2-1 start.
Given where they were less than two years ago, it's safe to say that the Steelers are more than OK with their current role as an underdog. Roethlisberger won his first Super Bowl as a sixth seed, after all. Don't be shocked if he and his teammates do it again.