The barbarians were at the gate, but the Steelers urned them away.
The Steelers’ 17-10 victory over the Patriots on Dec. 16 at Heinz Field was an example of what the defense had been after all along in the 2018 season.
“We want everyone on our team to trust the defense, to be able to trust us in key situations like that,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt insisted. “You don’t have to be on the edge of your seat, we’re going to make that stop.”
The Patriots, who trailed by seven in the fourth quarter, reached the Steelers’ 16-yard line and then the Steelers’ 11 in succession on their last two possessions.
The first of those drives for the potential game-tying touchdown was halted on an interception by cornerback Joe Haden.
The second ended on three consecutive incompletions, the third of which turned the ball over on downs with 14 seconds left in regulation.
“We didn’t flinch,” Watt said. “We had our backs up against the wall and we made plays.”
It didn’t happen often enough.
A 14-point, fourth-quarter lead got away in a regular-season opening, 21-21 tie in Cleveland.
A 16-point halftime advantage wasn’t enough in a last-play, 33-30 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Raiders wiped out a pair of fourth-quarter leads in a 24-21 win over the Steelers in Oakland.
The Saints scored the eventual game-winning touchdown with 1:25 left in the fourth quarter when they beat the Steelers, 31-28.
“We just didn’t finish games like we should have,” outside linebacker Bud Dupree lamented.
That wasn’t entirely on the defense.
A fumble by running back James Conner that ultimately set the Browns up at the Pittsburgh 1 jump-started Cleveland’s comeback.
And the Chargers’ rally included a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown.
But the defense also let a fourth-quarter lead get away with 1:18 left in the fourth quarter in Cincinnati in a game the Steelers rallied to win on a touchdown with 10 seconds left in regulation.
Another issue on defense was turnovers.
The Steelers’ minus 11 takeaway/giveaway differential (No. 28 in the NFL) included 15 takeaways (only the 49ers, with seven, and the Lions, with 14, had fewer).
Rushing the passer wasn’t a problem.
The Steelers’ 52 sacks tied the Chiefs for the league lead. Watt accounted for 13 of those (only Denver’s Von Miller had more among linebackers with 14.5) and ran his career total to 20 (the most in Steelers’ history in a player’s first two seasons).
The defense also got better as the season progressed in coordinator Keith Butler’s estimation.
“I think they’ve been more competitive, yes,” Butler assessed prior to the regular-season finale against Cincinnati.
It ultimately wasn’t enough to get the Steelers into the postseason.
Defensive end and defensive captain Cam Heyward acknowledged the defense’s shared responsibility in the Steelers coming up just short of the playoffs.
“In those critical situations where, as an offense, as a defense we needed a play, we weren’t getting it,” Heyward said. “As players, as coaches, as a staff, as Steelers we gotta make those adjustments.
“We didn’t get it done this whole season and that’s really what’s going to stick with me.”