Hebda: While imperfect, Steelers have true Super Bowl hopes

Courtesy of Getty Images | Steeler safety Minkah Fitzpatrick prances past Baltimore players on Nov. 1 after breaking up Lamar Jackson’s (second to left) last-second pass attempt, securing a 28-24 Pittsburgh victory.

Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer

Nov. 5, 2020

In a year defined by unexpectedness and inconsistency, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry remains as competitive and entertaining as always.

Pittsburgh kicked off November with a 28-24 comeback win over Baltimore on Nov. 1 at the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium.

After an abysmal first half, the Steelers found themselves in a 17-7 hole. Their fortunes changed after rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith made a smart read and intercepted Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson early in the second half.

That proved to be the necessary spark, as Pittsburgh went on to score three touchdowns and secure the lead.

The game ultimately came down to the final possessions. On a crucial fourth down, the Steelers halted Jackson short of the marker. Then, after Baltimore got the ball back, the Steelers’ defense came away with an end zone breakup as time expired.

At 7-0, the Steelers are the only undefeated NFL team. It’s their best start since 1978.

The remaining schedule, especially the next three weeks, is quite soft. Pittsburgh faces Dallas, Cincinnati and Jacksonville before a Thanksgiving rematch with Baltimore.

The final stretch — showdowns with Washington, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Cleveland — should be more challenging, but winnable nonetheless.

After two straight Januaries without a playoff game, Pittsburgh seems primed for a return. Barring a true catastrophe, that brief skid will end in due time.

But for this iteration of the Steelers, merely making the postseason is not the goal. This could be the Steelers’ best shot at a Super Bowl for a long time.

Future Hall of Fame QB Ben Roethlisberger is 38. In his return from elbow surgery, it is clear that his best days are behind him.

Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who’s in the last year of his rookie deal, will likely be somewhere else next season. O-linemen David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey, who have a combined 12 All-Pro recognitions, are both in their 30s. Pending free agent James Conner has been reliable, but health is always a concern for the oft-injured running back.

The defense has been terrific, but it is unclear how much longer this current unit will stay together. Core linebacker Bud Dupree could move on in free agency. Longtime lineman Cam Heyward is 31. Eventually, Pittsburgh will have to re-sign the likes of lineman T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, likely meaning cutbacks elsewhere.

Aside from those roster concerns, history is also telling. Generally speaking, Super Bowl prospects shift drastically each year for NFL teams.

Take a quick look at some recent Super Bowl attendees. Teams like the Panthers and Rams appeared to be budding dynasties, only to miss the postseason following their respective championship appearances. Atlanta still hasn’t rebounded from its devastating loss to New England in 2017.

With copious injuries and a frightening division, San Francisco’s chances to return to the Super Bowl this season seem slim. And ask the Eagles how they’ve done since that Nick Foles-led championship in 2018.

The vast majority of teams can compete at the highest level for only a finite period of time. That is, a championship window may last a sole season before slamming shut.

All the more reason the Steelers need to take advantage of this season’s opportunity. The Patriots’ downfall has cleared room for other AFC teams. Kansas City is still the alpha until proven otherwise, but the race appears wide open.

They may not be in this position — undefeated and atop the conference — again for a long time.

The opportunity is here for Pittsburgh to win the conference, that much is certain. Now, the question becomes: Can it capitalize?

Despite their sterling record, the Steelers have looked lackluster at times.

They have won only two games by double digits, struggling against poor teams like Denver, Philadelphia and Houston.

Roethlisberger has been good but not great. The secondary has been inconsistent. A supposedly dominant defensive line was pushed around by Baltimore’s run game.

While those are all valid concerns, they haven’t prevented the Steelers from winning.

Roethlisberger is not the same player he once was, but he continues to deliver when it matters. He leads an offense averaging just over 30 points a game this year, good for fifth in the NFL.

The defense has proven capable of making stops in big moments. Look no further than the fourth quarter against Baltimore.

That sort of closing performance has become typical for a unit that ranks first in total sacks and sixth in turnover differential.

Much remains to be seen, but if the playoffs started today, the AFC would consist of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo, Tennessee, Indianapolis and Cleveland. The Steelers have already beaten three of those teams.

Don’t forget that Mike Tomlin, the man at the helm, is a Coach of the Year candidate. Tomlin is already among the NFL’s most distinguished coaches, and this season has only added to his legacy.

The pieces are in place, and they need to make the most of them now.

Critics will continue to scrutinize Pittsburgh’s legitimacy, but I doubt the Steelers care. This is the best title opportunity this franchise has had in years, and they look ready for the occasion.