If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the first three weeks of the NFL season it’s that parity is alive and well. Only three NFL teams have 3-0 SU records—the Steelers, Bears and Chiefs—and Pittsburgh and Kansas City are the only two NFL teams with 3-0 records ATS. The obvious question on every bettor’s mind: What happens next?
With the Chiefs on a Week 4 bye, we’ll hold off a week before going in-depth on the team that has been the surprise of the NFL thus far. The Steelers, meanwhile, are an intriguing case because they’ve achieved success without two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Oddsmakers feared the worst when watching the Steelers’ backup passers look dubious this preseason, and even went so far as to make Pittsburgh a home underdog in the season opener against the Falcons. But a strong running game and an elite defense have led the way to their impressive start.
Since Roethlisberger took over as the Steelers’ starting QB as a rookie in 2004, he’s missed 11 starts, including the first three this season. Two of those were Week 17 games when Pittsburgh was already in the playoffs and probably would’ve played Big Ben in a more pressing situation—plus, other key players were given those games off. In the other nine Roethlisberger-less games, the Steelers are now 7-2 ATS and 6-3 SU.
Thus, the trend becomes clear that oddmakers overreact when Roethlisberger is out. This year has featured three relatively easy covers, with Pittsburgh beating the spread by an average of 14.5. As talented as Roethlisberger is, the cliché is true: The Steelers are a running and defensive team. With 10 takeaways and 33 points allowed, Pittsburgh’s defense has been dominant.
Perhaps the biggest reason the Pittsburgh defense has returned to dominance is the return to health of All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu. Although he started five games in 2009, Polamalu really only had an impact in four being that he left the game with a knee injury while making a tackle on Cincinnati’s first possession of Pittsburgh’s 18-12 loss on Nov. 15. The Steelers went 4-0 SU, 2-2 ATS in those four games with Polamalu; they were an un-Steelers-like 5-7 SU, 3-8-1 ATS when their star safety wasn’t on the field. With Polamalu missing three quarters of last season, Pittsburgh limped to a 5-10-1 ATS record—the Jaguars and Lions were the only other NFL teams with an ATS winning percentage under 35% in 2009.
Again, the question: What happens next? The Steelers are favored by a slim 1.5-point margin this Sunday at home against AFC North rival Baltimore, a team against which they were 1-0-1 ATS last season despite that fact that a) Roethlisberger sat out their first meeting, a three-point overtime road loss for the Steelers, who were getting 7.5 points in that game; and b) Polamalu missed both contests. A more general trend: NFL teams starting 3-0 SU since 2007 are 12-5 (70.6%) ATS in their fourth game. Expect the Steelers to emerge Sunday afternoon as the only NFL team with a 4-0 ATS record to start the season.