It was during that awful stretch of an NFL training camp, where the monotony was as thick as the humidity, when a change in the time of the daily thunderstorm from late afternoon to early afternoon qualified as a welcome diversion. During an interview that would air on the team's flagship radio station (WDVE-FM), Coach Mike Tomlin said about his defense, "We have the men, not only in personnel but in schematics and coaching. I expect them to be dominant."
Expect them to be dominant. Wow. Not a lot of room for misunderstanding there. But there's this: What qualifies as dominant? Statistics? Awards?
"You tell me," answered Tomlin. "Give me a circumstance, and I'll tell you what dominant defenses do. Dominant defenses smile in the face of adversity. The offense turns the ball over and puts them on a short field, they stand up. They stand up in the weighty moments – goal-line, short-yardage, two-minute. You know, (dominant) means a lot of things, and I was thoughtful when I said it because I want them to be what we need them to be whenever we need them to be it. And so dominant defenses are ready in a moment's notice, to put out a fire, to provide a winning edge, to take the ball away, to do the things that position your team for victory."
Four weeks later, the 2022 NFL regular season began, and the Steelers emerged from the opening weekend with a dramatic upset victory in overtime against the defending AFC Champions. A win that could be traced directly to their dominant defense.
Go back over Steelers 23, Bengals 20 in your mind's eye, and then re-read Tomlin's interpretation of dominant. It's as if it came directly from the game's official play-by-play.
To use numbers as evidence to support the narrative, the Steelers defense sacked Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow seven times and hit him 11 times; recorded five takeaways (four interceptions and a recovered fumble; finished with nine tackles for loss and nine passes defensed; limited the Bengals offense to 2-of-5 in the red zone and 2-for-4 in goal-to-go situations; and while Cincinnati's high-powered offense finished with 432 total net yards and 43 minutes and 43 seconds of time of possession, it also scored just one more touchdown in the game's 70 minutes than was scored by the Steelers defense (2-1).
"You can hide behind statistics, and I don't want to hide," Tomlin also said back in August. "Statistics are just a component of it. Do I expect our statistics to be impressive relative to our peers? Certainly. But I'm not going to seek comfort in that. We've got to be what this team needs us to be in significant moments as well."
The significant moments in the Steelers 3-point victory on Sept. 11 started presenting themselves early and never really stopped through nearly four hours' worth of drama on the floor of Paycor Stadium. Slow starts offensively plagued the Steelers throughout the 2021 season, and a quick three-and-out after receiving the opening kickoff didn't engender much confidence that 2022 was going to be decidedly different. And so, it fell to the defense to "provide a winning edge … to do the things that position your team for victory."
On the Bengals' first offensive play, Cam Heyward sacked Burrow, and when Burrow tried to compensate for that loss of yardage on the next play by deciding against a check-down for an attempt to get the ball to Tyler Boyd a bit farther down the field, Minkah Fitzpatrick darted over to intercept the pass and return it 31 yards for a touchdown.
And that was only the start, because over the rest of the first half, it seemed as though the Steelers defense was either standing up and keeping the Bengals out of the end zone after Burrow moved them into scoring position, or the unit was taking the ball away and providing scoring opportunities that the offense wasn't able to cash in on with sufficient frequency to build the kind of lead that would've been reflective of the disparity of the play.
Twice in the first half, the Bengals settled for Evan McPherson field goals, the second of which came after Burrow threw consecutive incomplete passes from the Steelers 8-yard line. But just because the Steelers offense wasn't capitalizing on all of the opportunities and beneficial field position presented by the defense, it capitalized on enough to build a 17-6 halftime lead.
The dominance displayed by the Steelers defense throughout the first half defied belief, because the Bengals are the defending AFC Champions and owners of a multi-faceted, potent offense, and yet the defense was making at least one significant big play per possession.
There was the Heyward sack followed by the Fitzpatrick pick-6 on the first possession; the first of Alex Highsmith's three sacks that forced a 59-yard field goal attempt by McPherson on the second; a Cam Sutton interception that was nullified by his penalty for pass interference, followed by a strip-sack by Highsmith and a recovery by Heyward on the third; an interception by T.J. Watt on the fourth; and an interception by Sutton on the fifth, before the Bengals were able to run nine clean plays to settle for a red zone field goal on the sixth.
It was such a stark departure for the way Burrow has played since 2019, his final college season at LSU when he burst upon the scene and up NFL draft boards with 60 touchdowns and nine interceptions, which was followed by two NFL seasons when he threw 47 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Against the Steelers, on 18 first-half pass plays, Burrow threw three interceptions (a fourth was nullified by a penalty) and was sacked four times.
"You saw some of them," said Bengals Coach Zac Taylor. "(T.J. Watt) jumps up and intercepts one. They made some really good plays. We'll review them all and make sure that, if we can make improvements at whatever position, we'll make them. I thought that they made some really good plays on the ball as well. You've got to give credit to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They showed up ready to play, they made some plays on some balls that were really great plays."
Come the second half, the Bengals settled down and cut way back on the turnovers (just one) and sacks (only three more) and their offense ran 61 plays in a relentless push to complete a comeback and squeeze out a victory. With that, the Steelers' task came down to digging in and working to prevent fatigue and attrition from erasing the cushion it had played such a large role in helping to build.
Before Chris Boswell's 53-yard field goal as time expired in overtime ended things, the Steelers defense had Watt, Highsmith, Heyward, and Levi Wallace miss various amounts of time with injuries, and the most potentially serious of those appears to be Watt's, which was being reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter on Sunday night as a possibly torn pectoral.
That will be determined via tests on Monday, but the Steelers should be credited with not succumbing when presented with those injuries and what became a relentless Bengals offense. And when Cincinnati lined up for an extra point with 2 seconds remaining in regulation that would win the game, Fitzpatrick broke through and blocked it to send the game into overtime.
"If you got ground to defend, defend it. If you got bullets in the gun on offense, you fire them," said Tomlin. "More than anything at the early stages of the season, when you have new guys, you just want to know that they're in their game — that they don't shrink in the moments. And so that was really good to be in some of the moments and see some of the things that we saw."
Especially a defense that was what the team needed it to be whenever it needed to be it throughout 70 minutes of football to secure a victory over the Bengals. In other words, it was dominant.