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The Steelers keep winning, and it doesn't make any sense

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are the most puzzlingly good team - if you can even call them that - in recent memory.

At face value, everything about the Steelers suggests they're good. Their 6-3 record suggests they're good. They hold a playoff spot and are only a half-game away from leading the AFC North. That's good, right? Well, when you analyze the anatomy of this Pittsburgh team, almost nothing explains how this resilient Mike Tomlin-led side has been able to do what it has done.

By now, everyone has heard the defining stat; Pittsburgh is the first team in NFL history to be outgained in each of its first nine games and emerge with a winning record. It's unbelievable but still barely scrapes the surface of the absurdity.

When compared to other members of the six-win club this season, the Steelers appear to be the perfect example of faking it till you make it. Their minus-26 point differential is 25 points worse than their nearest six-win companion, the Seahawks, who are at minus-1, and 130 points away from the Cowboys, who sit at plus-104.

In fact, Pittsburgh's point differential is tied for the fourth worst out of any 6-3 team in NFL history.

Worst point differential for 6-3 teams in NFL history

Year Team Record Point Differential
1986 Cincinnati Bengals 6-3 -30
2020 Cleveland Browns 6-3 -28
2016 Houston Texans 6-3 -27
1936 Pittsburgh Pirates 6-3 -26
2023 Pittsburgh Steelers 6-3 -26

The biggest problem is the offense. With an uninspiring coordinator in Matt Canada and a largely pedestrian but clutch quarterback in Kenny Pickett, the Steelers just don’t score enough to be this good.

Through nine contests, the Steelers have put up 156 points - 17.3 per game. Teams with that sort of production just don't get to 6-3. In fact, they don't get anywhere close. Going back to 2010, the Steelers aren't just the only team to have reached six wins while scoring 160 or fewer points through nine games, they're the only one with a winning record.

Teams to score 160 points or fewer after 9 games since 2010

Number of wins Number of teams
6 1*
5 0
4 10
3 18
2 12
1 14
0 7

* 2023 Steelers

The Steelers haven't scored more than 26 points in a game this season. Even worse, they've hit 30 points just once since 2022. The last time they actually went over 30 was all the way back on Nov. 21, 2021 - almost two full years ago.

As expected, the lack of points has forced Tomlin's squad into more nail-biting finishes than any other team. And no team wins them as often.

The Steelers are an incredible 6-0 in one-score games this year. Surely, that must spell big trouble ahead. After all, records in close games are one of the most volatile statistics in the NFL.

Except, for some reason, laws of regression don't seem to apply to Tomlin, who has seemingly created a winning formula that laughs in the face of unsustainability.

Dating back to 2020, the Steelers have gone 28-9-1 in one-score games. That .750 winning percentage ties them with the Chiefs for the best mark in the NFL.

Kansas City being up there makes sense. With a generational quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, it's no surprise the Chiefs are able to eke out wins. Pittsburgh, however, hasn't enjoyed that luxury. Tomlin has carved out that record with a past-his-prime Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Mitch Trubisky, and Pickett.

So, how do the Steelers keep finding themselves in close, low-scoring games and how do they keep winning them? The strategy is simple to understand but a lot harder to actually make work.

Step 1: Don't turn the ball over. Step 2: Bank on the defense generating turnovers and forcing red-zone stops. Pickett, though criticized for his conservative style, is the only quarterback to account for fewer than five turnovers this season, per CBS. Meanwhile, the defense has generated a league-leading 18 takeaways while ranking fourth in the red zone.

A formula like that gives the Steelers nearly no margin for error. But, no matter how much they are forced to bend, they simply don't break.

Maybe Tomlin himself is the answer to Pittsburgh's improbable start. After all, his 16 straight non-losing seasons to start his career are as inexplicable as records come. But he's found a way to make it happen, just like the Steelers have somehow found a way into the thick of the AFC's playoff race.

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