The Pittsburgh Steelers sat on the couch as the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers played in the Super Bowl on Sunday. It’s been a while since they have been on that stage, but not just that, they have not won a playoff game since 2016. But with how these teams are constructed and how it plays out, some significant takeaways can be learned from these teams. What could the Steelers learn from it?
Invest in the Secondary
This is my biggest takeaway, largely because the Chiefs did a lot of their defensive damage on the back of a great secondary. Guys like L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie stood out in massive ways to help boost Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, and it is part of why he can blitz at liberty. There is no true weakness back there, and even if guys like Jaylen Watson are not All-Pros, they are athletic starter-level players. The Chiefs did not have great weapons this year and, at times, struggled to get consistency out of their tackle duo.
How, in part, did they skirt by? It is a fantastic defense powered by a Chris Jones-led front and a secondary full of athletic, versatile players who fit the scheme well. Listen, the Steelers have many questions to answer in the secondary. But they have a dynamic safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick and a young, emerging cornerback in Joey Porter Jr. Load up on the secondary and invest in it. Make a run at Sneed, who is from the Chiefs secondary but is a free agent.
To me, one of the easiest ways the Steelers can at least hold out and win games with their quarterback situation is to create an elite defense and a feared secondary. The rest of the team must pick up the burden to a degree. So, the secondary is the top need on defense, and they need to make it a top priority this offseason.
Never Forget the Third Phase
One of the sentiments I often see in the Steelers fanbase is the disdain for Pittsburgh’s mentality about special teams. They roster guys like Miles Boykin and Miles Killebrew, who generally do not play much on offense or defense but carry great special teams value. But each time we get deeper into the playoffs, I am reminded of why they value that so much. It’s easy to overlook the fundamental plays of someone like Chris Conley for Kansas City while watching the gaffes the 49ers made on all cylinders.
I will never fault the Steelers for their insistence on maintaining the importance of special teams. Great special teams encompass enormous punting, kicking, and coverage units. It’s why they will look to fix their punter situation, mainly because of how many times it hurt them, including in the playoffs. Teams in the playoffs are all talented, and the margins between them are slim. Special teams can make up the difference between winning and losing. The 49ers lost in large part due to their special teams. Pittsburgh should continue to emphasize them.
One QB Note
Patrick Mahomes is an alien. Brock Purdy isn’t. But there are two things in common that I see between them that I want to point to when we talk about the Steelers’ quarterback discourse. One, the way they win most routinely, is from the pocket. Yes, the highlight reel, background football stuff that Mahomes does is unique and important, but if you can not win in-strucutre, you’re doomed. You have to hit the reads, the easy stuff, what is given to you and drawn up in the pocket before we talk about the flashy, out-of-structure stuff. Purdy wins with great anticipation and timing, and Mahomes has just as much of that. This was the difference between Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph last year.
Second, mobility is essential. You should be able to get out of structure, but more than that, just having the ability to run and punish defenses for playing man coverage is huge. Mahomes thrived off it, and Purdy made several plays taking advantage of his mobility, too. You don’t need to be Lamar Jackson, but being able to functionally scamper for six or seven yards is so key in staying ahead of the sticks or making a change in the short yardage game.