This is how they have to play. As a team, with each unit doing its part, and every player on each unit contributing something to the overall effort, even if that contribution is nothing more than not screwing up.
Last night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals came on the fourth weekend of their regular season, at the end of the first quarter to keep it in the parlance of the sport, and the Pittsburgh Steelers finally put together a complete game. Not a complete game in the sense that each unit was perfect, but a complete game in the sense that each unit supported and complemented the others.
That it happened against a Bengals team that’s still an 0-fer in the post-Marvin-Lewis era might mitigate the outcome for some, but getting the job done is getting the job done, and that’s what the Steelers’ 27-3 victory at Heinz Field last night represented. They got the job done, and it’s just as legitimate to point out the overdue nature of the victory as it is heartening to emphasize some of the details of how it was achieved.
Coming into the game at 0-3 meant the Steelers were facing three whole months of NFL irrelevance should they fall to 0-4, and the reality of those numbers made a clear case for how bad it had been for them right up until the ball was placed on the tee on Monday night. Pick one element of their play during those first three weeks, any one element, and listing the ways it had failed was a simple exercise. The Steelers never should’ve been in a situation of playing a virtual must-win game on the final day of September, but their reality was that they were.
Against this backdrop, the Steelers’ evening’s work began, and it was the defense that was tested initially. The Bengals ran seven plays and made a couple of first downs after receiving the opening kickoff, but a sack by Devin Bush created a third-and-long that quickly led to a punt. But two plays after getting off the field, the defense was sent right back out there when rookie receiver Diontae Johnson lost a fumble.
It was in this very kind of sudden-change situation in which the defense failed miserably in San Francisco, but this time the unit was up to the challenge and the Bengals attempted three passes and completed just one for 5 yards before settling for a red zone field goal. Just to make sure the defense was on its game, the Steelers offense got stuffed trying to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 42-yard line on its next possession and the fertilizer had been applied to allow that three-point deficit to grow roots.
But again the defense responded, this time with a three-and-out, and the storm had been weathered. Now it was time for the offense to pick up the defense.
From the start of the second quarter through the end of the third, the Steelers offense had six possessions, and not only did the unit produce three touchdowns and a field goal, but it also also made 15 first downs, with a one-play possession among those others being somewhat deceiving because that one play was a 43-yard touchdown pass from Mason Rudolph to the same Diontae Johnson whose lost fumble had set up the Bengals’ only score.
Along the way, the offense showed signs of advancing through the process of finding an identity as it transitions from Ben Roethlisberger to Rudolph. The Steelers unveiled a wildcat package with Jaylen Samuels taking the direct snaps from center. They found some success running from that alignment, and they also used the wildcat and a conventional shotgun to stretch the Bengals defense horizontally with a series of jet sweeps, with either Samuels or Rudolph pitching the ball forward to either James Conner or Johnson for consistent hunks of yardage.
The offense still seems a bit too gimmicky for long-term success over the rest of the regular season as opponents are afforded the opportunity to study what worked against Cincinnati and prepare specifically for it; Rudolph will have to make more plays down the field to stretch the defense vertically; and even taking into account the success the unit had on Monday night, the Bengals still ran more plays (64-56) and enjoyed a slight edge in time of possession (30:14-29:46). But in light of the distance covered from Rudolph’s first NFL start to his second, it’s conceivable there can be more improvement on the immediate horizon.
And that’s going to be mandatory, because the Baltimore Ravens will be in town on Sunday, and one of the ramifications of 0-3 is that the Steelers cannot afford to be losing home games against division opponents if they plan on still being relevant come Halloween.
But after Monday night against the Bengals, after a game in which the offense shook off the cobwebs of a three-week slumber and the defense bared its teeth for a second consecutive week, after Chris Boswell was 2-for-2 in field goal attempts and continues to look like and perform as the 2017 version of himself, and after a performance that was the first true team effort (in a positive way) of this season, there can be some hope.
Because before that, well, the whole notion of climbing back into the AFC North race by virtue of these back-to-back home games against division rivals was nothing but a pipe dream.