Four Downs: Jeff Driskel joins list of unknown or overmatched QBs Steelers face in finales
Jeff Driskel, meet Thaddeus Lewis and Austin Davis and Seneca Wallace. Welcome to the club of no-name quarterbacks of teams playing out the proverbial string that the Pittsburgh Steelers face in a season finale.
The Steelers will face Driskel – a 2016 sixth-round pick who’s making his fifth career start – Sunday when they hope to close out their 2018 regular season with a win against the Cincinnati Bengals. Over the past two decades, the Steelers have been sensational in Week 17 games going 16-2 since 2000. That’s remarkable, even if 16 of those 18 opponents were non-playoff teams.
An unusual common thread between almost all of these final regular-season opponents has been that they’ve often been led by almost-comically unknown or overmatched quarterbacks. For example, in each of the past three and four of the past five Steelers Week 17 games, the opposing quarterback never made another NFL start. Driskel, playing only because of an injury to Andy Dalton, could well join that group.
Dalton in 2014 is the only opposing quarterback among the past 12 the Steelers have faced in Week 17 that was his team’s starter when the season began. Since 2002, only Drew Bledsoe (2003), Joe Harrington (2005), Carson Palmer (2007) and Dalton (2014) have been a starting quarterback for a finale against the Steelers who started the opener that year and the season after. Since 2000, only Palmer and Dalton went on to be NFL starters for as many as two more seasons. Ten of the 18 had eight or fewer career starts after their Week 17 Steelers matchups.
The quarterbacks to beat the Steelers in a season finale since the turn of the century? Both are unheralded Ravens – Anthony Wright (2003) and Troy Smith (2007). There were once-proud veterans on their final legs (Bledsoe; Jeff Blake, 2002), colossal draft busts (Ryan Leaf, 2000; Tim Couch, 2001; Harrington) – and someone fits somewhere in the middle of those two categories, Robert Griffin III (2016). And don’t forget the eminently-forgettable likes of DeShone Kizer (2017), Jason Campbell (2013) and Colt McCoy (2010). At least Bruce Gradkowski (2008) is a Pittsburgh native and future Steeler.
2. Penalty flip
Remember when the Steelers were being killed by penalties? When they lead the NFL in times being flagged and yardage penalized – by a sizable margin – during September? Well, the script has flipped.
During each the Steelers’ past seven games, opponents have been assessed more penalties and penalty yardage than the Steelers. This, after the opposite was true for six of the Steelers’ first eight games.
Whereas the Steelers were an almost-unfathomable net minus-216 yards in penalty differential through Week 8, since the net has been an even moreso incredible plus-345. The former would rank the Steelers fifth-worst over a full season; the latter would by far be the NFL’s best over the full season.
Even after the horrible start to the season, the Steelers have climbed all the way back up to seventh in the NFL in penalty yardage differential (plus-124).
3. No meaningless games here
The Steelers haven’t had a losing season since 2003, and they’ve made the playoffs 11 of the 15 seasons since. And while the odds aren’t in the Steelers’ favor to qualify for the postseason this year, at least there’s a chance – they’ll kick off Sunday at Heinz Field still alive for a playoff berth.
That’s significant because it continues a trend – the Steelers simply don’t play a lot of “meaningless” games in which they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention. Since Ben Roethlisberger entered the league in 2004, they’ve only had two: the 2006 and 2012 finales. Even in non-playoff seasons 2009 and 2013, the Steelers walked off the field after their final game still alive for the postseason (both times, a game later that day sealed their fate). Sunday, Steelers-Bengals and Ravens-Browns both kick off at 4:25 p.m.; the Steelers need a win plus a Cleveland win to extend their season.
4. Third-down success
If they score 25 Sunday, the Steelers will set a record for most points in a season (right now, it’s 436 in 2014). They rank fourth in the NFL in both yardage (407.3 per game) and points (27.5 per game) – and the advanced analytics like the Steelers’ offense, too: they are third in WDVOA, a respected all-encompassing metric from footballoutsiders.com.
So what’s been the best part of the Steelers’ offense? Is it third downs? They are fifth in the NFL in both third-down conversions and conversion percentage. According to ESPN, Ben Roethlisberger is sixth in the league in quarterback third-down success, helping the Steelers be the NFL’s fourth-best offense on third-and-medium (3-6 yards to go) and 10 th in third-and-long (seven-plus yards to go).
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.