All it took for the Steelers to put things together was for Tom Brady to come to town.
That's what it looked like Sunday when the Steelers held off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, 20-18, as the offense, defense and special teams all played off each other to end the team's four-game losing streak punctuated by an embarrassing loss last week at Buffalo.
Against Brady and company, the offense knows it's going to have to possess the football and score. The Steelers did that, getting into the end zone on their opening possession for the first time this season when Kenny Pickett threw his first career touchdown pass, a 6-yard toss to running back Najee Harris.
And when you're playing Brady, you know he's going to challenge your defense to play fundamentally sound. The Steelers did that, despite being without safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and corners Cam Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace on the back end.
The Buccaneers' long play was just 28 yards and the Steelers allowed just two plays of 20 or more yards in the game despite lining up without four of their top five defensive backs.
Finally, they needed to make something happen on special teams, a task Steven Sims accomplished on the opening kickoff of the second half when he zipped 89 yards before being tackled at the Tampa Bay 12. Add in a perfect day kicking for Chris Boswell and a solid day punting by Pressley Harvin and it equaled a win – at least on this day.
"A total team effort," Steelers linebacker Myles Jack said.
"Any time you beat Tom Brady, it's going to take a total team effort. It's always special beating Brady. I don't care what anybody says. It's a good feeling. He's the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). I'm going to tell my kids I played him. It's really cool."
And a much-needed win.
"You lose four games in a row, it stinks coming into work," center Mason Cole admitted. "You're answering all of the questions. To get back into the win column is huge, but there's a lot more ahead of us. We've got to get back to work."
As head coach Mike Tomlin noted at his press conference last week and Cole alluded to, the Steelers didn't dig themselves into their 1-4 hole in one day, nor will one win dig them out of it. But beating Brady and the Buccaneers could give this team the boost it needs. When you're 1-4, even the most confident of teams or players can see that swagger waver.
Tomlin's message to his team was to stay the course, keep your head down and keep working. This proves to anyone who might have doubted that approach that it does work.
"It's a team effort," said defensive lineman Cam Heyward. "Beating Tom Brady is not an easy feat. If we see him again, we'll see him again. But he does not make it easy on you."
He didn't in this game. The Steelers took it.
• The defense was outstanding in this game. The defensive line, largely rushing four players, was able to make Brady step off his spot in the pocket. And once his feet started moving, his accuracy suffered.
"We knew we had to get him moving off his spot," said defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi. "We knew how critical it was for guys just rushing better, playing fast and getting upfield and making it difficult for him in the pocket."
The Steelers also had to slam the door on the Buccaneers' running game. They did that, as well, holding Tampa Bay to 75 yards on 26 attempts, a 2.9 yards per carry average.
"It's a four-quarter battle," Heyward said of playing Brady. "It's not like you're going to just keep stopping him. But I thought we did a great job of winning early on third down, making them settle for field goals. I think that was a game-changer for us."
The Bucs were 0-3 in the red zone in the first half, including getting stopped after having second-and-goal at the 1 in the second quarter. Ogunjobi knifed into the backfield to drop Leonard Fournette for a 3-yard loss and Heyward then sacked Brady on third down, forcing a field goal.
Overall, Tampa Bay was 1 for 4 scoring touchdowns on red zone trips, eventually getting in on a Fournette catch in the fourth quarter, but then Devin Bush came up with a big pass deflection on the two-point conversion to keep Chris Godwin from making the catch and Tampa Bay from tying the game.
"That's Seven Shots," said Jack. "That's Coach Tomlin. We stretch and we get right to it. That's just great coaching and execution by Devin."
"Huge, huge huge," said outside linebacker Alex Highsmith of Bush's play. "When we were making plays, everyone was back to having fun. That's what we talked about this week. We needed to get back to playing with swag. We know we can, so we've just got to keep building."
• Mitch Trubisky and Chase Claypool saved this game for the offense.
Trubisky, deposed as the starting quarterback three weeks ago, was forced to enter the game in the third quarter when Kenny Pickett left with a concussion.
He made a number of big plays down the stretch with both his arm and his legs. And several of his throws were to Claypool, who finished with seven receptions – on seven targets – for 96 yards.
Four of Claypool's catches – three of which came from Trubisky – were on third downs and led to conversions.
"I want to be the guy who can be counted on in those situations," said Claypool of the third-down conversions. "Any time I get an opportunity, it's an honor to make those plays or have the opportunity to (do so)."
Well, he was very honored in this game, especially with the game on the line, when he converted a third-and-15 with a 17-yard catch, and then a third-and-11 with a 26-yard grab off a scramble play.
"Just some big-time catches by Chase over the middle," said Trubisky.
• Those plays helped bail Cole out.
On second-and-2 from the Pittsburgh 33 with 3:51 remaining and the Steelers holding a 20-18 lead, Cole snapped the ball past Trubisky. Trubisky was able to scramble back and fall on the loose ball, but only after a 13-yard loss.
The next play, Trubisky hit Claypool for a 17-yard gain.
"Honestly, I jumped offside. I flinched. I double clutched," Cole said of the play. "It was oh (shoot). We got to third down and I was good.
"I told (Trubisky) after the game, 'Thank God you fell on that snap and then got the third down.'"
The Bucs had a different view of the series of plays.
"They almost choked the game away," said linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. "At the end of the day, they made the play on third down when it counted."
That's a bit harsh. The Steelers were the better team throughout this game.
• A couple of guys are going to get some ribbing when the Steelers watch the game film on Monday.
First will be Sims for getting run down from behind on his electrifying 89-yard kick return to open the second half.
The second will be tight end Connor Heyward, who had a 45-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, only to get tackled at the 11.
"Man, was I excited," Cam Heyward said of his younger brother's catch and run. "It was a little bit unexpected. I'm glad he was ready for the moment. But I needed him to score on that.
"It was a great catch. He's got to get in better shape."
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 6 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Acrisure Stadium
• The Steelers are in a little better shape after this win, even at 2-4, largely because the Ravens and Browns lost.
The Steelers now find themselves just a game out of first place in the AFC North with plenty of season still in front of them.
Get the injured players who missed Sunday's game back will be a bonus. And T.J. Watt and Damontae Kazee also are both closer to a return, as well.
• That said, Tomlin might have an interesting choice to make in the coming weeks. Trubisky was 9 of 12 for 144 yards and a touchdown in just a little over a quarter of play. He looked confident and daring, making throws we didn't necessarily see when he was the starter before.
Pickett is obviously the team's future. But what happens if he misses next week's game at Miami and Trubisky performs well again?
It's a good problem to have, and it's why Tomlin sits in the seat he does.
• Najee Harris' overall numbers in this game don't look great – 14 carries for 42 yards – but he made some strong runs in the fourth quarter to help the Steelers salt this one away, looking as good as he has all season.
The Steelers cobbled together a running game overall in this game, running five jet sweeps to help slow down the Tampa Bay pass rush.
It largely worked, as the Bucs had just two sacks after being forced to respect the Steelers' jet sweep motions.
But it appears better days might be ahead for the traditional rushing attack.
• File this under the old axiom that the other team has coaches too.
Mike Evans got four targets in this game. Now, the Steelers were paying a lot of attention to the Buccaneers' big wideout. But four targets?
That's one more target than Connor Heyward, the Steelers' third-string tight end, had.
• File this game under a magnificent job by Tomlin and his coaching staff. To beat that team and that quarterback as undermanned as the Steelers were on defense took a fabulous performance.
There was a lot of film study to figure out tendencies involved.
"Coach saw plays that were kind of hinted at a little bit," said Jack of the Steelers' defensive red zone success. "We just executed. Everybody did what they were supposed to do. It was a great win to be a part of."
The Steelers did gift the Bucs a field goal at the end of the first half, so this wasn't necessarily a perfectly coached game.
After getting the ball back with 46 seconds remaining at their own 14 with Tampa Bay still holding two timeouts, the Steelers chose to pass on first down. Pickett threw an incompletion after being flushed from the pocket.
Then, the Steelers ran the ball for 1 yard on their next two plays, with Tampa Bay using its timeouts to stop the clock.
That forced a punt with 32 seconds left in the half.
The Steelers gave the ball back to Brady at the Tampa Bay 49 with 23 seconds remaining. He hit one pass and they were in field goal range, which they kicked to make it 10-9 at the half.
It didn't wind up hurting the Steelers, but it certainly could have done so had the coaching staff not done such a great job everywhere else.