They're lucky aesthetics don't matter, because there was nothing pretty about it. If there was any feel-good left from the win over the Browns in Cleveland, either in the categories of running the ball and stopping the run, or a steadily improving offensive line, or consistently doing the little things on defense, such as staying in gaps vs. the run and maintaining rush lanes to prevent the quarterback from find a way to escape, or not hurting themselves with turnovers and/or ill-timed penalties, well, it's back to the drawing board there.
The Steelers won the game on Monday night at Heinz Field, a 29-27 victory over the Chicago Bears that extended their winning streak to four, raised their record to 5-3, put them in sole possession of second place in the AFC North, and has them sitting pretty in a conference where only Baltimore and Tennessee have fewer than three losses.
That's a factual look at the big picture, and it flatters the Steelers, but we are deep enough into the 2021 regular season that it becomes fair to question whether this two-steps-forward, one-step-back pattern of performance is sustainable. At some point, there have to be answers to questions, instead of more questions to be answered.
Today, it's a bit difficult to know where the Steelers are on that front.
In some ways, coming out of Monday night's game with any kind of a victory could be viewed as good enough, because the officiating was a mess and caused a disjointed three hours and 20 minutes where both sides had legitimate reasons to be miffed at the way things were adjudicated.
Tony Corrente's crew assessed 17 penalties, 12 of which were on the Bears, and so the Steelers deserve praise for rising above that level of self-inflicted wounding. In the immediate aftermath, the focus was on two penalty calls in particular – one of which took a Bears touchdown off the scoreboard in the third quarter when James Daniels was flagged for contact below the waist to a Steelers defender outside the tight end box. The other was a taunting penalty on outside linebacker Cassius Marsh following a sack that dug the Steelers out of a punting situation and gave them new life on a possession that ended with a 52-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that upped the Steelers' lead to 26-20 with 2:52 remaining in the fourth quarter.
In a pool report with Adam Hoge, Corrente said, "Keep in mind that taunting is a point of emphasis this year. And with that said, I saw the player (Marsh), after he made a big play, run toward the bench area of the Pittsburgh Steelers and posture in such a way that I felt he was taunting them." Corrente denied that what seemed to be some inadvertent contact between him and Marsh had any impact on his decision to throw the penalty flag, saying, "That had nothing to do with it. It was the taunting aspect."
The Bears undoubtedly wake up this morning believing they got the short end of the stick in both of those situations, but it's just as likely the Steelers are feeling the same way about a 50-yard catch by Marquise Goodwin that was the big play in a third quarter field goal drive that didn't have as big an impact on the scoreboard as it did on the confidence level of the Bears offense; and Ray-Ray McCloud's fumbled punt that was scooped and run into the end zone by DeAndre Houston-Carson that shrunk a 10-point Steelers lead to three midway through the fourth quarter.
Replays indicated that Goodwin didn't complete the catch before losing control of the ball as he fell out of bounds, just as replays indicated McCloud was down by contact before the ball squirted loose to begin Houston-Carson's dash to the end zone.
Coach Mike Tomlin challenged the ruling on Goodwin's catch, but the call on the field was upheld, and because the second play resulted in a touchdown that inident was automatically reviewed. Both of those went in the Bears' favor, just as the two aforementioned penalties went in the Steelers' favor. Does that mean it all evened out? Hardly, and even though it's impossible to label any or all of them as the difference in the outcome, it's also accurate to maintain that each of the four impacted the flow of the game at a critical point.
Overcoming the officiating is something good teams do, and because the Steelers ended up winning the game, they get to check that box. But that was mitigated by the offensive line going back to allowing too much free penetration by the Bears defensive line that served to stuff a lot of running plays before they had a chance to get started, it exposed Ben Roethlisberger to more hits than he had taken in either of the team's two previous victories, and it left the Steelers looking toward jet sweeps and sideways passes to accomplish what they had been able to accomplish against the Browns by lining up and moving defenders off the line of scrimmage by winning one-on-one physical matchups.
The defense did record three sacks – all by T.J. Watt – recorded eight hits on Justin Fields, and limited him to just 45 yards rushing, but there also were occasions where a careless approach during the pass rush allowed him to escape contain and make plays down the field that kept drives alive. And for a quarterback who had looked lost in his previous starts when trying to execute an NFL-caliber passing game while averaging 6.3 yards per attempt, Fields was poised in the pocket while finding tight end Cole Kmet down the middle of the field and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney down the sidelines to pass for 291 yards and average 10.0 per attempt.
By the end of the game, Fields wasn't looking like a rookie quarterback or performing like one, and so it came down to whether the Steelers veteran quarterback was going to be able to deliver for his team in crunch time. Ben Roethlisberger did, with what was the 38th fourth-quarter comeback of his career, and the two critical plays were a 22-yard catch-and-run by Diontae Johnson that looked very much like the play that sent the Steelers toward victory formation in Cleveland, and then a diving catch by Pat Freiermuth for 13 more yards to put Boswell into range to send the 60,788 fans home happy, if sleep-deprived.
If the Steelers are going forward-and-backward with some aspects of their weekly performance, the one characteristic that seems to be a consistent weapon in their repertoire is resilience.
"I think we displayed (resilience) throughout," said Tomlin. "We made plays against Denver, we made plays at the end of the game vs. Seattle. I thought the significant thing in this one was the offense had an opportunity to do it. And so, that's the awesome thing about team sports, and football in particular. You're going to face enough adversity that everyone is going to have an opportunity to ante up and kick in.
"That's a good lesson to be learned throughout this. Hopefully we grow and grow in the right ways when you deliver like that."
And since there already has been enough adversity that everybody has had the opportunity to ante up and kick in, hopefully the Steelers can move on to fix some of the things that seem to be leading to that adversity in the first place.