The Steelers can’t take their 5-3 start for granted
It’s not as important how you start, but how you finish.
While the Steelers have been employing this philosophy too much this season in their games, this really does ring true when it comes to looking at the NFL season as a whole. Too many times a team has found a lot of success early only for their play to not improve or injuries to get them down, they finish the season on a low note, and can’t come through in the postseason. Steelers fans are all too familiar with this as the 2020 season is a perfect example.
For a team to really make some noise in the postseason, they need to be playing their best football by the end of the year. But in order to get themselves to the postseason, they have to play well enough in the first half to set them up to make it. Another example for Steelers fans what is the 2022 season where this was the case.
When it comes to the 2023 Steelers, they have not been playing their best football, or at least Steelers fans hope this is not the best they have to offer. But while struggling to get going offensively and giving up a lot of yardage on defense, the Steelers have found a way to reach the midpoint of the 2023 season with a 5–3 record. If the Steelers would have been able to do this last season, they would have positioned themselves in a nice playoff spot and possibly would have won the division depending on which games they were victorious.
But just because the Steelers started 5–3, it does not mean they are destined to make the postseason even with the expanded format with an extra spot available over the last several seasons.
Looking back at the Steelers in the Mike Tomlin era, they finished with at least five wins through the first eight games for what is now the 12th of Tomlin’s 17 seasons. Of those other 11 seasons where the Steelers have five wins through eight games, the Steelers have made the postseason eight times and appeared in two Super Bowls. But even with a good start to the year, three occasions the Steelers did not make the postseason after having a winning record at the midpoint of the season.
One season in which the Steelers began 5–3 and did not make the postseason was in 2012 where the Steelers finished out the second half going 3–5 and failed to make the postseason. While an 8–8 record is not overly impressive, it actually would have put the Steelers in the postseason had the same format that is now in place had been the case back then. But losing three of their last four games, were the Steelers really prepared to make a postseason run?
Another season where the Steelers had five wins through eight games was in 2018 when the Steelers were 5–2–1 but finished the year 4–4 and had the best record in the league that did not make the postseason. But their tie to start the year against the Cleveland Browns came back to bite them as they finished 0.5 games out of the AFC playoff hunt. More importantly, the Steelers had a three-game losing streak from the end of November through the first two weeks of December which ultimately cost them and had them losing four of their last six games.
If these two seasons are not enough of a cautionary tale, the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers started 6–2 the first eight games of the season only to finish 3–5 as they lost their first five games of the second half before winning three straight to finish up the year. With four AFC teams finishing up at 9–7, the Steelers were not one of the two that had the tiebreakers in order to make the playoffs.
The 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers have done what last year‘s team could not do and that is find a way to win in the first half of the season. What this year‘s team needs to do now is take a lesson from the 2022 Steelers by bringing things together and play a much better brand of football during the second half of the year. If the Steelers can repeat this formula while changing the first half a year from last year, not only should they put themselves in a position to make the postseason, but could even be a “team on the rise“ in getting there.
While the Steelers should not take their improved start for granted simply based on last season, being in the ultra-competitive AFC North is all they need to realize. Even though the Steelers are in second place in the division and are 1.5 games back of the Baltimore Ravens, they simply own the tiebreakers at this time as both the Browns and the Bengals have the same overall record. So despite being in a much better position than last year, the Steelers still have a very small margin for error.
Starting 5-3 is nice, but it’s where the Steelers go from here during the second half of the 2023 NFL season that means everything.