News & Analysis

Steelers are an underrated bet in the AFC North

With the 2019 regular season fast approaching, the search for value in fantasy football and the futures market, whose markets are drying up with each passing day, is only starting for many. While win totals, division, playoff and Super Bowl futures have been up since the spring, there are still some values to be had in these markets, and we discuss two involving the same team today, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers, after starting 1-2-1, surged to a 7-2-1 record in 2018 on the back of a brilliant emergence from second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and a defense playing better than their talent level would suggest, surrendering less than 300 yards each game from Week 6 to Week 11. While they finished just 3-4 in their final seven games, three of those losses were on the road, and all were by a touchdown or less, and three were by exactly a field goal. Two of those defeats were hard-fought, three-point losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and the New Orleans Saints. While Ben Roethlisberger was not his normal self from a grade standpoint in 2018 (finishing just 16th), the 2018 Steelers team was, for all intents and purposes, a playoff-caliber team.

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While the Steelers lost Antonio Brown in the offseason, the Baltimore Ravens have a promising young quarterback and a great defense, and the Cleveland Browns improved the personnel all over their roster, there is some value in backing Pittsburgh to make the playoffs and/or to win the AFC North division, with odds from BetOnline:

Pick: Pittsburgh to win the AFC North (+175)

Pick: Pittsburgh to make the AFC playoffs (+105)

Our model has the Steelers winning the AFC North a little over 41 percent of the time (above the break-even of 36% implied above) and making the playoffs in just under 59 percent of simulations (above 49%).

A bet on one team is every bit a bet against the other teams in its division, as well as the rest of the teams on its schedule, and this is no different. The Steelers face the league’s seventh-easiest schedule per our PFFELO power metric, the third-easiest schedule of opposing defenses (using our PFF Massey ratings) and the ninth-easiest schedule of opposing offenses. After facing the New England Patriots, a team they defeated in 2018, on the first Sunday night of the season, they get three of their next four at home and face the entire AFC East, a group of teams on which we’re a little lower than the consensus. There is certainly a chance that teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals improve out of the NFC West, but regression might be in store for their other NFC opponents, the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks.

The AFC North is also far from a sure thing in terms of being an elite division. The Ravens turned the ball over in each of Lamar Jackson’s starts last year, with the quarterback fumbling 12 times total and failing to get the offense over 200 yards passing in all but one of his starts. The Browns are likely to be much improved, but the path from seven wins to a division title is sure to be more difficult than that from zero wins to seven wins. 

In terms of Pittsburgh themselves, they addressed some key needs this offseason through free agency and the draft. After cornerback Artie Burns was a disaster as a first-round pick, the Steelers went out and got Steven Nelson from Kansas City, a player who was worth more than a third of a win last season for the Chiefs. Their linebackers have struggled since the night Ryan Shazier went down with an injury in the latter part of 2017, so they moved up in the draft to select Devin Bush from Michigan, who generated 33 stops and five pass breakups, while chipping in 31 pressures as a blitzer for the Wolverines. If youngsters T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds can progress, their defense should be able to do enough to keep them in games for Big Ben and the offense. 

Speaking of the offense, the loss of Brown will hurt, but they have been arguably the best team in terms of drafting young receivers over the last decade and have two youngsters in James Washington and Diontae Johnson to go with the ever-intriguing Donte Moncrief and a legitimate superstar in Smith-Schuster. Johnson averaged over eight yards per catch after the catch in Toledo and should be able to make some plays in offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner’s scheme. Fitchner, one of the best play-callers in the NFL last season, called passing plays on the first 15 plays of the game more than all but one play-caller (Andy Reid) and gave Big Ben the quickest time to throw of any quarterback in the league in 2018, protecting the quarterback during a season in which he struggled process-wise.  Smith-Schuster caught three or more passes in each game last season, and over seven catches in half of the games, generating over 600 yards after the catch in his role as a premium slot receiver than can also play on the outside. Continued improvement by him, Fitchner and running back James Conner should give the Steelers enough offense to capitalize on an improving defense in a slightly overvalued AFC North in 2019.

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