The path to the Super Bowl is clear for Pittsburgh.
Beat Miami on Sunday, then beat Kansas City the following Sunday, then beat New England, most likely, the Sunday after that. It’s an unenviable task, surely, but given where the Steelers were at 4-5 following two post-bye week losses, it’s the task they got and the task they’ll happily take.
The Steelers faced all three of their probable AFC playoff opponents this season, beating Kansas City in Week 4, 43-14, then falling at Miami in Week 6, 30-15, and home to New England, 27-16, the following week. The difference in those three games? Rushing yards.
This might seem like a total oversimplification of a very long and tumultuous Steelers season, but when the Steelers rush for more than 100 yards, they are 8-1. When the Steelers rush for less than 100 yards, they are 3-4.
When the Steelers rush for more yards than their opponent, they are 9-0. When they rush for fewer yards than their opponent, they are 2-5, with the only two wins coming in a Week 5 drubbing of the Jets and the utterly meaningless Week 17 win over the Browns that, still, had to go to overtime.
This is as simple as football gets, but that’s precisely what Pittsburgh needs to do to win in the playoffs: Play simple.
Run the ball.
Stop the other team from running the ball.
Miami ran all over the Steelers in Week 6, putting up 222 yards on the ground, including 204 yards and two scores by Jay Ajayi. The Steelers lost.
In the win over Kansas City, a much different offense now than earlier in the season with the emergence of rookie sensation Tyreek Hill, the Steelers held the Chiefs to just 87 yards rushing, while Le’Veon Bell racked up 144 on 18 carries. The Steelers won.
The game against New England is harder to categorize given Ben Roethlisberger’s absence, but the numbers didn’t lie: LeGarrette Blount rumbled for 127 yards and two scores on the Pittsburgh defense that day, while the best scoring defense in the NFL held Bell to just 81 yards rushing on 21 attempts. Tom Brady’s 19-for-26 for 222 yards and two scores had a lot to do with that win as well, so this is by no means a suggestion that the Steelers won’t have to worry about New England’s passing game at some point, but in order to get to that AFC title game matchup, winning the battle on the ground will be the Steelers’ primary focus the next two weeks.
Frankly, winning the battle on the ground should be the focus of every team in the playoffs this year.
While the NFL has morphed into a passing league over the last decade and a half — a direct result of both offenses course correcting against a generation of stout run defenses and the NFL changing its rules to benefit receivers and quarterbacks — the trend this season has begun to course correct back against defenses built to stop the spread passing game. In other words, running the football is important in the NFL again, even if teams rarely line up in two tight end sets with a fullback and a tailback looking to punch the other team in the nose. Getting a guy like Bell out in space — handing him the rock in a four-wide set with far less traffic in the middle of the field — can both keep defenses honest and exploit them all the same.
Of the 512 team games played this season (Note: There are 256 games each NFL season, but all 32 teams play 16 games, which gives us 512 team games.) there were 260 100-plus rushing performances. (Note 2: these are team rushing stats, not individual rushers.) Teams won 159 of those, with three ties. That’s 61 percent, which is good, but it fails to account for games in which both teams rushed for more than 100 yards.
There were 148 games in which one team rushed for 100 yards and the other didn’t, according to Pro Football Reference. In those games, the team with 100 yards or more won 104 times, with one tie, a win percentage of 67.6. Extrapolated out to a 16-game season, that’s 11 wins.
Let’s keep going with teams that kept rushing. Teams ran for 150 or more yards 93 times this season, winning 65, a 70 percent success rate. There were nine games this season where both teams rushed for more than 150 yards, and in five of them, the team with fewer rushing yards actually won, though three of those games went to overtime, and a fourth involved Jacksonville.
Teams rushed for 200 or more yards 30 times this season, winning 25 of them. One game had two 200-yard rushing teams, and three of the five losses came in overtime games. The five teams that lost despite racking up 200-plus rushing yards were Buffalo (twice), Jacksonville, San Francisco and Cleveland, this past Sunday at Heinz Field. Those are some historically bad teams, despite the hefty ground-game outputs.
What’s most concerning for Pittsburgh should be that of those 30 games, they were the victims twice, once last week and once against this Sunday’s opponent.
Miami rushed for 200-plus yards three times this year — all on the back of Ajayi — in wins over the Steelers and twice against Buffalo. The Steelers rushed for 200-plus just once, also against Buffalo. The good news for Pittsburgh’s defense, perhaps, is that Miami’s rushing attack was incredibly inconsistent this season, with 10 games under 100 yards, including seven of 75 yards or less. The Steelers held opponents to less than 75 yards seven times as well, and will surely need a game more in line with that, and less like the last time they faced Miami, to advance in these playoffs.
Should the Steelers get to Kansas City, they’ll face a team with just seven 100-plus yard rushing games this season, but four in the last five weeks. And that doesn’t account for Andy Reid’s penchant for the screen pass, ostensibly a run in the Chiefs’ offensive scheme. Of the 3,914 passing yards Alex Smith, Nick Foles and, for one play, Dontari Poe amassed this season, 2,076 came after the catch, many of which came on short passes and screens to the running backs and tight ends.
Pittsburgh is better than they were last time they faced Miami, on both offense and defense, while the Dolphins aren’t anything like what they were once Ryan Tannehill went down with an injury. Pittsburgh shouldn’t have to worry too much about the big play ability of either of their next two opposing quarterbacks, with backup Matt Moore running the show for Miami and Smith always more of a short-yardage passer. Unless Smith can get the ball in Hill’s hands in space. Then watch out.
Look, the Steelers should win against Miami and could be favored riding the longest active win streak into Arrowhead next week. Then would come a game for the ages against Brady and the Patriots for a trip to the Super Bowl, something that seemed impossible to imagine eight weeks ago.
But first things first this week. The key to beating Miami is simple: Stop the run. Run the ball. And win.