It was, head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged, a “big disappointment” when the Steelers came up just short of the playoffs, but the just-completed season still had its share of memorable games.
Four stand out in particular:
Dec. 23, at New Orleans, Saints 31, Steelers 28
It ended in heartbreak, on a last-minute fumble by wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster at the New Orleans’ 34-yard line with the Steelers driving for either the game-tying field goal or the game-winning touchdown. But the Steelers nonetheless put on tape the type of game they were capable of playing in a high-stakes confrontation against a top-caliber opponent in a hostile environment.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Smith-Schuster finished with 11 catches for 115 yards, and wide receiver Antonio Brown had 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Brown’s best might have been a 19-yard sideline grab that had to withstand a replay review on fourth-and-15 from the Steelers’ 20 with 1:09 left in regulation.
The Steelers battled through penalties they perceived to be unjust and battled back from a 10-point, second-half deficit.
Steelers president Art Rooney II appeared on the Steelers Radio Network Pregame Show prior to the regular-season finale against Cincinnati and praised the Steelers for having played “a good game against a tough opponent in maybe the toughest place to play in the league,” in New Orleans.
“Really was proud of the way our guys played last week even though we didn’t quite get it done,” Rooney continued. “Mike had them ready to go.”
Dec. 16, Heinz Field, Steelers 17, Patriots 10
The Steelers came in having lost five in a row to the Patriots and 11 of 13 to New England quarterback Tom Brady. But with the game hanging in the balance late, the Steelers’ defense was able to seal the deal this time. The late-game heroics included an interception by cornerback Joe Haden at the Steelers’ 4 midway through the fourth quarter, and the forcing of three consecutive incompletions from the Steelers’ 21 in the final 33 seconds.
Brady was only sacked once but he was hit seven times and the Steelers’ pressure was relentless.
“That last play (fourth-and-15 from the Steelers’ 21 with 20 seconds remaining in regulation)
he was kind of fading off, you know he didn’t really have to,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt maintained. “It just kind of shows how much we were around his feet, around his throwing motion all night long.”
New England was penalized 14 times for 106 yards, including repeated infractions for either delay of game, false starts or offensive holding.
Watt also credited a crowd he said was the loudest he’d heard at Heinz Field.
A night to remember.
Nov. 4, at Baltimore, Steelers 23, Ravens 16
The Steelers had been pushed around up front in a 26-14 loss to the Ravens on Sept. 30 at Heinz Field.
They pushed back at Baltimore.
They amassed 395 total net yards while possessing the ball for 36:29. They rushed for 113 yards, including 107 by running back James Conner, who averaged 4.5 yards on 24 carries. And they limited the Ravens to 61 yards on the ground.
Conner also had seven catches for 56 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown, on the way to becoming the first player in NFL history to register four games with at least 100 yards rushing, 50 yards receiving and a touchdown in a single season.
“It’s James being better,” offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva assessed of the Steelers’ ability to run the ball against the Ravens this time. “It’s James showing that no challenge is too big for him, the No. 1 defense, whatever it might be.
“When you’re so close to him and you see him lower his shoulders and you see him get a couple yards, it’s extremely motivating.”
The win was the Steelers’ fourth in a row since their loss to Baltimore in the teams’ initial meeting.
Nov. 18, at Jacksonville, Steelers 20, Jaguars 16
Another demon was exorcised via a seven-play, 68-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown run by Roethlisberger with five seconds left in regulation.
Initially, the third meeting with the Jaguars in two seasons was playing out as the two had last season. Running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 74 yards and averaged 5.3 yard per carry in a first half that ended with the Steelers trailing, 9-0.
But in the second half the Steelers slammed the door shut.
Fournette’s next 14 carries netted just 21 yards. And Jacksonville went three-and-out and gained a combined minus 3 yards on four consecutive possessions after the Jaguars had scored a touchdown for a 16-0 lead with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
For the Steelers, there was just enough time remaining.
Roethlisberger hit Brown for a 78-yard touchdown before the third quarter ended (a two-point conversion attempt failed) and tight end Vance McDonald for an 11-yard score with 2:28 left in the fourth quarter (this time the Steelers kicked the PAT to pull within three at 16-13).
On the final drive, Roethlisberger had five options on first-and-goal from the Jacksonville 1 with eight seconds remaining. None were available to him, so he ran through Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack and nudged the ball into the end zone.
“I don’t know what option I am on that but it’s way down on the list,” Roethlisberger said. “They took away the other ones.
“It’s kinda one of those things, the competitiveness, the end zone’s right there, when you see it you just find a way to stretch it out.”