Work to do: The Steelers held on tight for a 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football, but afterwards Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged there is work to be done still, and kickoff coverage was one area in particular he pointed to.
"We've got a lot of work on, but we were good enough tonight to secure victory and for that we are thankful," said Tomlin. "We got a short week. We got another road trip waiting on us and so you got to sleep fast and do those things.
"I thought our kickoff units got to be better. I thought that was a catalyst for whatever got started with them in the second half. The field position component of it was a big negative. We gotta get better there. The field positioning was a negative in that aspect of the game, but that's what jumped out at me.
"It was a lot of good. It's a lot of things you grow from. We'll accept it and move forward."
The kickoff return Tomlin was referencing happened at the start of the second half. Dallis Flowers returned it 89 yards to the Steelers 19-yard line, and four plays later Jonathan Taylor took it in for a two-yard touchdown to cut the Steelers lead to 16-10. The Colts kept their momentum going, taking a 17-10 lead, before the Steelers went on top.
When asked what changed in the second half for the Steelers defense, who shut the Colts down in the first half, Tomlin pointed right at the kickoff coverage.
"Kickoff coverage," said Tomlin. "It's the natural ebb and flow of football. They got momentum with that kickoff. They were able to put that ball in the end zone and so you got to turn that tide. That's professional football. That's just part of it. And it doesn't happen in an instant."
While the kickoff coverage struggled, one area that stepped up big was the run game. The Steelers were already missing Jaylen Warren, who was inactive with a hamstring injury, and then Najee Harris was ruled out with an abdominal injury after carrying the ball 10 times for 35 yards in the first half.
It would be Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland, who was elevated from the practice squad for the game, who carried the ground game. Snell finished with 12 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown, and one reception for six yards. McFarland had six carries for 30 yards and two receptions for 11 yards.
"I'm just appreciative of both guys effort," said Tomlin. "Sometimes you get battlefield promoted. A guy like Benny Snell became a central part of what we were doing offensively. He was still on punt team. He was still on punt return. He was still on kickoff.
"Ant Mac, the guy's always waiting and working and waiting for the opportunity. And he did some things that we saw in team development, the preseason, that make him a little bit different than some of the other backs. Things he's able to do in space. The screen game, the draw game, I just thought he was an asset to us."
Making the play: In a game where a big play was going to be needed at the end to seal a win for either team, it was linebacker Alex Highsmith who came up with one.
The Colts had just converted a fourth-and-three and were driving at the Steelers 33-yard line with 1:35 to play. Highsmith brought it, sacking Colts quarterback Matt Ryan for a seven-yard loss, forcing a fumble the Colts were able to hold onto. Backed into a second-and-17 situation, Ryan took it for 14 yards on the scramble. With 34 seconds to play, Highsmith nailed running back Jonathan Taylor for no gain. The Colts couldn't convert on fourth down, and it was victory formation for the black and gold.
Highsmith said watching film on the Colts gave him an idea of what was going to happen on the play.
"I felt like they kind of hurried up to the ball and watching the film and kind of knowing the position the tight end was in, I could kind of tell that he was gonna try and cut me off, it's gonna be a run play," said Highsmith. "Just how quick they were getting up to the ball I knew they were gonna do a run play. So I just trust my instincts and just shot it."
Taylor finished the game with 20 carries for 86 yards, 52 of those yards coming in the second half.
"I feel like they came out and were able to establish the run," said Highsmith of the Colts second half performance. "I feel like we didn't play that as good in the second half, and on the drive that they did score Jonathan Taylor was able to run the ball really good. We just can't ease up in that aspect. I felt like we shut down the run very well in the first half and so we just got to play a full game when it comes to that.
"We kept it contained but we got to get back in the film room and watch, get better at making the pile fall backwards. There were times where we had them stopped, the pile just fell forward. We just got to continue to get better in that aspect. We just got to get back to the film room tomorrow and look at what we can improve."
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 12 game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium
Unbelievable drive: A 16-3 halftime advantage had degenerated into a 17-16 deficit and the third quarter was 16 seconds away from becoming the fourth, but rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett maintained he knew just what was required at that critical juncture.
"I mean, listen, it's reading the room, knowing what we need," Pickett insisted. "I think everyone was dialed in, locked in on what we had to do. There is no rah-rah speech that's going to go put the ball in the end zone. You just kind of had that look about you, and everybody else responds that way and it was business.
"So it was an unbelievable drive, great drive to get in there, and then get the two-point conversion."
The drive began at the Steelers' 25-yard line and started with an incompletion and a 1-yard gain by running back Benny Snell Jr.
The Steelers faced a third-and-9 when the fourth quarter clock began ticking.
That's when Pickett found rookie wide receiver George Pickens for a 13-yard gain.
Another 15 yards were tacked on due to a roughing-the-passer flag against Colts linebacker E.J. Speed.
Suddenly, the Steelers were off and running.
What ultimately became the game-winning drive covered 75 yards on 11 plays in 5:21.
It included two more conversions on third downs, a 17-yard connection to tight end Pat Freiermuth to the Indianapolis 3 and then a read/option handoff to Snell for a 2-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal.
Pickett campaigned for the play that resulted in Snell's touchdown during an injury timeout.
"Yeah, 'Coach T' (head coach Mike Tomlin) puts a lot of confidence in myself, just asks me what I like, what I don't like," Pickett said. "We were in four-down territory. Yeah, so we were going to go for it again on the next play if we didn't get it.
"I felt confident, real confident with that play and real happy we got to the end zone."
Pickett followed up Snell's go-ahead touchdown by delivering a strike to Pickens in the back corner of the end zone for a two-point conversion and a 24-17 lead the Steelers would not relinquish.
Pickett scrambled right and threw on the run and Pickens went to his knees to make the catch on the two-point play.
"The window, I mean, when the defender's back is to you, you can kind of place the ball where you want," Pickett explained. "It's George that has to make the play. I was happy. He kind of jabbed inside, went out, so low and away is usually the safe bet to give him the best chance to make a play. He went down and made a hell of a play.
"I was talking to him all game, just keeping his head in it. He's an unbelievable player. There will be ups and downs in this thing, but if we stick with it, I think we'll be all right at the end of the day."