How Far Away Are the Pittsburgh Steelers From Playing This Sunday?

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As we all know, this Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday.  Or, as all the sportsbooks have to call it because they don't have the naming rights, "the Big Game".  The Kansas City Chiefs, led by Patrick Mahomes, will take on the youngster, Jalen Hurts, and the Philadelphia Eagles.

It's difficult to watch some of these playoff teams and imagine the Steelers competing with them.  They all have prolific offenses, and that is exactly what the Steelers don't have.  Yet.

However, while the quarterbacks will always be the story, especially when one of them will most likely be in three or four Super Bowl commercials during the game, let's not overlook the defenses.  Kansas City and Philadelphia also both have two of the best pass rushing defenses in the NFL today.

Chiefs' defensive linemen, Chris Jones and Frank Clark, have collected seven Pro Bowl honors just between the two of them, and Jones is a 2022 First Team All-Pro.  They even have a Pro Bowler backup in Carlos Dunlap who many Steelers fans should recognize from his many seasons with the Bengals.  Jones finished 4th among all players this season with 14.5 sacks.  

It was made clear just how much better the Chiefs' pass rusher are than the Buffalo Bills with how often KC was getting to Joe Burrow two weeks ago.  The narrative of the Bengals weak offensive line came to fruition after they took care of business in Buffalo the week before.  It ultimately led to the Bengals undoing when they failed to drive down the field for a game winning field goal, and instead was forced to punt by the Chiefs defense.  

The Philadelphia Eagles defensive line is even better.  Javon Hargrave, Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, and Fletcher Cox have combined for 40 sacks from just their linemen.  Add in linebacker Haason Reddick's team-leading 16 sacks, among others, and the Eagles led the league with 70 sacks, which is a franchise record.  They also became the first team in NFL history to have four players with double digit sacks in a single season.

And did you see what they did to the 49ers two weeks ago?  Sure, the Niners were on their third string QB, but the defensive assault was pretty clear.  I'm not sure Brock Purdy would have performed any better.  Or really any quarterback not named Patrick Mahomes.  It's no coincidence that 3 of the 4 Championship teams had 3 of the top 4 sack leaders this season.  

All this to point out what should be the real story of the Super Bowl.  Rushing the passer still wins championships.  Sure, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts have played huge roles in getting their teams to this point, but defense still wins championships.  And we'll see it again on Sunday.  The team that gets to the quarterback more will be the team that wins the Super Bowl.

So why is this good for the Steelers?  The Steelers still have one of the best defenses in the league.  And, especially when TJ Watt is on the field, they get to the quarterback as well as any team in the league.  Watt and Alex Highsmith are a formidable duo, with Highsmith finishing just outside the Top 5 in sacks this season.  Now, we don't know if Cam Heyward will be returning, but the Steelers will have three draft picks in the first 50 this year.  Even if they spend one of those on an offensive lineman, you have two other opportunities to take elite defensive talent.  Also, with a few moves, the Steelers could open up a decent amount of cap space to sign one more.  

The Steelers also have the luxury of not needing to focus on offensive skill players in this draft.  They have their franchise quarterback in Kenny Pickett, the statistically best wide receiver at getting open in the league in Diontae Johnson, one of the most athletic wide receivers in the league in George Pickens, a 1st round running back in Najee Harris, and a top tier tight end in Pat Freiermuth.   While I do hope the Steelers do use one of those top draft picks to upgrade the offensive line, that unit actually took a step forward this season.  So while the offense struggled this season, I would argue it was more the game plan than the personnel.

Meaning the Steelers can focus on upgrading the already decent pass-rush they have this offseason.  This is still a league where defense wins championships and this is still a Steelers team that can depend on a Steel Curtain-like defense.  Especially since they already have one of the best defensive players in the game when he's healthy.  Nobody changes a game from the defensive side like TJ Watt can.  

So just how far away are the Steelers from playing in another Super Bowl?  It's tough to say.  Because the AFC is absolutely loaded.  But it's hard to stay on top for long.  The Bengals will be facing cap issues soon with all of their young contracts expiring and the Bills window appears to be closing.  Also, only two teams make it to the Super Bowl every season, and there's an amount of luck involved to get there.

However, the Steelers are not as far off as some may think.  They were just one game away from the postseason in what many considered a "rebuilding" year.  They also have personnel in place that just need more luck in the injury department and a couple more pieces to be truly elite sides of the ball.  I would also argue, vehemently, they have a Top 5 head coach in the league.  It really is a recipe for success that is just missing a couple of ingredients which the Steelers are in line to add.

It's close Steeler fans.  And one or two great offseason additions could make it all but imminent.