Labriola On

Labriola on 'Ben being Ben'

It would be a mistake to overreact to the Steelers victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field, to view the victory snapping their three-game losing streak as proof that the maladies contributing to a month's worth of misery had been cured by 30 minutes of quality football. But it would be just as wrong to underrate what it meant to them.

In many ways, the Steelers team that posted a 28-24 comeback victory over the Colts and secured the AFC North Division title as a result of it still is an unknown 16 weeks deep into this NFL regular season, even if many of its characteristics have been identified and fleshed out. As examples: These Steelers cannot depend upon their running game and their offensive line isn't particularly physical; their defense remains willing and capable of bringing consistent pressure, and it is a consistent threat to take the ball away.

OK, but is the passing attack triggered by Ben Roethlisberger a sufficient antidote to the offense's inability to run the ball? And has the talent drain on defense caused by a series of injuries to some stars (Devin Bush and Bud Dupree) plus some of those stars' backups (Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, and Ulysees Gilbert) neutered the group to the degree it should be recognized as more complementary than dominant?

There were answers to those questions before kickoff of the game against the Colts, and there very well may have been different answers after Philip Rivers' final fourth down pass hit the Heinz Field grass. But are any of them definitive? Are the 2020 Steelers as they are comprised at this moment capable of making a run in the playoffs?

Why the Steelers continue to begin games slowly, or more accurately, why they continue to play like dog-spit in the first quarter, particularly on offense, defies logic. It's not as though the entire team is awful at the start of games, but what has happened of late is that the offense's early ineptitude has a negative impact on the other phases of the team and the sum total is a quick deficit.

Sunday was more of the same. The Colts won the toss and elected to defer – why any team wouldn't choose to give the Steelers the ball first should be considered coaching malpractice – and things "progressed" as per the recent script.

First play: slant pass bounces at the feet of the intended receiver. Second play: exactly the same as the first only to a different receiver. Third play: instead of the ball bouncing at the intended receiver's feet, the pass is low and away. Punt. Three-and-out. No yards gained. Only 11 seconds run off the game clock. And then this from the CBS broadcast crew: Only the New York Jets offense has authored more three-and-outs this season than the Steelers. Ugh.

And before the sting of an on-air comparison to the Jets had a chance to dissipate, the Colts drove 70 yards in nine plays (five runs), converted both third downs, and took a 7-0 lead on a frighteningly easy-looking 6-yard run by Jonathan Taylor for a touchdown (on a third-and-goal).

A course had been charted, and so it continued throughout the first half. Sure there was the occasional first down earned by an infrequent third down conversion, and a great individual defensive play – a strip-sack by T.J. Watt – created a takeaway that gave the offense the ball in a spot on the field even it couldn't mess up, and so at least it wasn't a shutout like the Monday nightmare in Cincinnati. But the rest pretty much went according to script.

Five punts. No running play gained more than 2 yards. Seven runs vs. 20 passes. Nothing down the field, at least nothing down the field that worked. No discernable time of possession. And then the defense cracked, because on back-to-back possessions after turning the ball over and handing the Steelers an easy touchdown, the Indianapolis offense put together a methodical 12-play, 85-yard touchdown drive and followed it up with a quick strike 42-yard touchdown pass to Zach Pascal to build a 21-7 lead.

Granted, part of the job of the broadcast team working the game is to create an aura that a blowout is a couple of plays away from turning into a barn-burner to seduce viewers into not changing the channel, but Tony Romo seemed to be beating the same dead horse: That because the Steelers had no running attack, it behooved the Steelers, or maybe more accurately, it behooved Ben Roethlisberger to take some shots down the field to convince the Colts defense it had to defend the whole field because the area within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage was looking like a sidewalk in pre-COVID Manhattan at lunchtime on a weekday. Oh, and Romo also kept saying, get Chase Claypool more involved.

When the Steelers didn't, or maybe more accurately, when Roethlisberger didn't, it just lent credence to the various doomsday theories about his arm strength, or gimpy knee, or that the batteries in the Energizer Bunny simply had died after 17 mostly wonderful and memorable NFL seasons.

One of the unfulfilled themes of the previous couple of weeks had been that the Steelers needed their stars to play like stars to pick up the slack created by the toll injuries had taken on the roster. They talked about it and talked about it, and then starting with the first offensive possession of the second half, Roethlisberger took the reins. It kind of happened in increments at the start – an 11-yard completion to Claypool, followed by a 34-yard shot down the field to Claypool – and even though that drive stalled with an incomplete pass on a fourth-and-goal from the Colts 2-yard line, Roethlisberger seemed to be feeling it.

The Steelers' biggest star did what the team needed him to do, and it looked like October all over again. During a 10-and-a-half-minute span in the second half, Roethlisberger threw three touchdowns passes while completing 23-of-29 (79.3 percent) for 244 yards. Also during the second half, he took seven shots down the field, with three completed (including touchdowns of 39 yards to Diontae Johnson and 25 yards to JuJu Smith-Schuster) and two others drew defensive pass interference penalties. Also, after not being targeted at all in the first half, Roethlisberger threw six times to Claypool in the second half, with four completions for 54 yards and a team-best 13.5 average.

Coach Mike Tomlin wouldn't acknowledge that the offense came out for the second half with a specific plan to get the ball down the field more often, but this is what he did say: "We played better. We got open more. We made better throws. We protected better. It's all a collective. We thought some chunk plays were there. We didn't necessarily get them or capitalize on them (in the first half), but that wasn't going to stop us. We weren't going to be deterred. It was a critical component in terms of us getting back in the game. You're not going to get back in the game 3 yards at a time when you're down the way we were down, especially when you give up a field goal to start the second half."

And then just as the poor performance of the offense in the first half had leaked over to the defense, the rejuvenated offense seemed to energize the defense during the second half. After that field goal on the opening possession of the second half, the Colts punted three straight times – and managed only one first down doing it – and turned the ball over on a Mike Hilton interception before a last gasp ended with an incomplete pass on fourth-and-8 from the Steelers 33-yard line.

Now that the Steelers have shown the ability to overcome their current shortcomings and still put together the kind of performance necessary to defeat a quality opponent, the only question is whether this can be the start of a trend, or is it to be a one-off.

There is one guy who will have more say in that than anyone else on the roster, and that it's Roethlisberger should be just as apparent as the energy he provided during the second half against the Colts and how the rest of the team fed off it and played better. The Steelers' recipe for victory is a fragile one, one that cannot withstand much deviation, and the ingredient they must have is the kind of play they got from their quarterback against the Colts.

The playoffs begin in two weeks, and with this latest version of "Ben being Ben" and the shot of confidence he has provided with his play, they have a chance. Without that, they don't.

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