Where the Pittsburgh Steelers must improve to remain the AFC top seed in 2020

Relax, Steeler Nation — the Pittsburgh Steelers are still a good team. While Pittsburgh was upset by the Washington Football Team on Monday night, it was their first loss of the season after starting the year 11-0. In that loss, though, and over the last number of weeks, the Steelers haven’t played well enough to make a deep playoff run. The Steelers may be cream of the crop in the league as the top AFC seed, but they need to improve on a few key aspects of their game if they intend on going to Tampa in February.

The Pittsburgh Steelers need to catch the ball

The Steelers lead the NFL in dropped passes with 33. Almost a quarter of those drops came against Washington, as Pittsburgh receivers dropped eight passes in their first loss of the season. Two Pittsburgh Steelers also rank in the top ten in dropped passes this season. Diontae Johnson leads the NFL in dropped passes with 10. Eric Ebron is tied for third in the league with seven.

As great and pivotal as both Johnson and Ebron have been to the Steelers’ success this season, they both have literally dropped the ball in key moments. It finally caught up to them in Week 13 after playing their second game in five days. In the playoffs, with no margin for error, the trend is a viable concern.

It isn’t just Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron, though. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a key drop on a third-and-long that would have extended a Pittsburgh drive early in the game. Chase Claypool hasn’t been perfect over the last two games, either; he has four drops on the season. Going up against a Buffalo team that can put up points, Pittsburgh needs to limit their mistakes. Scoring opportunities against Buffalo will be at a premium. Another game filled with dropped passes could lead to their second straight loss.

 The Steelers need to throw the ball downfield

As good as their offense is, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t take nearly as many shots downfield as we are accustomed to seeing. Ben Roethlisberger is 24th in intended air yards per pass attempt and the passing game as a whole has become dink-and-dunk, reliant on yards after catch. This isn’t Roethlisberger’s fault. This falls on offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s playcalling.

While it is understandable to want Roethlisberger to get the ball out of his hands quickly to avoid possible injury, Roethlisberger has made a career out of extending the play and throwing downfield as the play breaks down. While there is nothing wrong with protecting your quarterback, there is something wrong with taking away what he does best, especially with the weapons at his disposal.

Fichtner, and the rest of the staff, should let Ben be Ben. That doesn’t mean abandoning the principles based in West Coast philosophy. But it wouldn’t kill the offense to let Roethlisberger move, and give his guys time to get open downfield to get more chunk plays. It’s what Roethlisberger has done his entire career. The Pittsburgh Steelers need that jolt of excitement and the threat of the deep passing game if they want to hold on to the top AFC seed and compete with Kansas City, should the two meet in the playoffs.

The Steelers need a respectable running game

First off, let’s not pretend that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ lack of a running game is anything new. They have ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing for the last three seasons. That said, being as one-dimensional as they have been has also made them predictable. That could be why the offense has leaned so much on the short passing game. They are using the short passing game as an extension of the run game that has been non-existent.

All the blame can’t fall on the Pittsburgh Steelers for that, though. They have been banged up in all facets. Running back James Conner and All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey have both been on the outbreak reserve list. Pouncey’s absence has caused the interior of the line to be far less effective.

With Conner also out of the lineup, Pittsburgh has had to rely on Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland to run behind a depleted line. If the Steelers want to hold on to the top AFC seed, they need a respectable ground attack. They won’t be among the top rushing teams in the league, but they need their top rusher to have more than 15 yards and they need to gain the confidence to run the ball in short-yardage situations.

With both Conner and Pouncey returning this week against a Buffalo defense that has struggled in stopping the run, there is no reason the Pittsburgh Steelers shouldn’t look to establish the run game to set up a more balanced offensive attack.

Can the Pittsburgh Steelers win the Super Bowl?

The Steelers are good; one loss isn’t going to change that. However, there are clear weaknesses that need addressing if they expect to make a run at a seventh Super Bowl. The good news for them, though, is that all of their issues are fixable. If they address and adjust their weaker areas, there is no reason to believe they can’t finish this season as the No. 1 AFC seed and end their journey in Tampa with Ben Roethlisberger raising his third Lombardi Trophy.

You can follow Jarrett on Twitter @JBaileyNFL and Pro Football Network @PFN365.

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