ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – At the time, the question posed to Coach Mike Tomlin had to do with what characteristics a team must have in order to be a good road team in today's NFL.
"I think that good road teams are simply good teams," Tomlin had said. "Good teams find a way to win, regardless of circumstances, game location, environment. The teams that I've been on that are good road teams are simply good teams."
If this 2016 season turns out to be a successful one by the Steelers' own standards, Dec. 11 will be recognized as the day they became worthy of being called a good team. It has been more a process than an overnight sensation, a process that has been difficult at times and remains ongoing. But there has been sufficient progress made recently to give the impression that they're close, if not already there.
History will remind us that on Dec. 11, the Steelers won their fourth straight game after losing four in a row, and those four victories included three wins on the road after they had lost three straight away from home. This one was a 27-20 final that was more suspenseful than it needed to be, but that was OK, too, because surviving self-inflicted suspense is part of the process, too. But more on that later.
What was singularly impressive about the Steelers victory over the Bills was that it proved they have solved the mysteries of run defense, and it had been almost exactly a calendar month ago when they had bottomed out by allowing two rushing touchdowns within the final two minutes of a come-from-ahead loss to Dallas. As horrendous as the visual had been of Ezekiel Elliott gliding 32 yards for the Cowboys' game-winning score at a horrified Heinz Field, come yesterday at New Era Field the Steelers defense swarmed and attacked and shut down LeSean McCoy and the No. 1 running attack in football.
After the loss to the Cowboys had put their losing streak at four, the words "accountability" and "discipline" were brought up inside the Steelers locker room, and coincidently the Bills running attack was going to demand those two things from this defense because of its diversity. LeSean McCoy has been putting one-guy-out-of-position defenses onto his highlights reel all season, and not recognizing that Tyrod Taylor is a threat on designed running plays in addition to scrambles out of the pocket had made for some long afternoon for opposing defenses already this season.
The Steelers played assignment football, and their athletes on defense did the rest in limiting McCoy to 27 yards on 12 carries, Taylor to 2 yards on three carries, and the Bills running attack to 67 yards on 18 carries, a total largely traceable to 34 yards from Mike Gillislee on a couple of end-of-the-first-half plays that had no actual impact except on the stats sheet. Generally speaking, the game represented another feather in the defense's cap because of the progress shown against the run – even though there still were some aggravating lapses.
In the run-up to the game, it seemed as though the Steelers might be able to fight fire with fire in terms of dealing with McCoy and Co. by force-feeding a heavy dose of Le'Veon Bell down the Bills' throats. Possessing the football and controlling the time of possession, while scoring points of course, would drag Buffalo's offense out of its comfort zone.
LeSean McCoy is a very good running back, a duel-threat runner/receiver who's a big play waiting to happen. Le'Veon Bell is markedly better than McCoy in every category, and it was on display for three full hours on Sunday afternoon. Bell's production was ridiculous – a franchise single-game record of 236 yards rushing on 38 carries (6.2-yard average), and he scored all three Steelers touchdowns. Bell also caught four passes for 62 yards to finish with 298 yards from scrimmage, just short of Antonio Brown's franchise record of 306. And the numbers pale in comparison to the visual – actually seeing Bell do those things made the day's work all the more impressive.
What kept the afternoon more exciting than it needed to be were three turnovers, all interceptions, one of which set up a Buffalo touchdown while another cost the Steelers at least three points and quite possibly seven. That they could overcome a minus-2 turnover ratio to win a game on the road is nice to know but not something this team should believe it's capable of pulling off on a regular basis.
Game action from Week 14 against the Buffalo Bills.
Now they're 8-5 and still in control. No scoreboard watching is necessary now, nor would it ever become necessary if they handle their business. And really, that's what they did against the Bills. They handled their business. They used their running attack and their run defense to overcome a minus-2 turnover ratio to win a game against a desperate opponent on the road in cold, snowy conditions.
But that's what was necessary, and good teams are the ones that find a way to accomplish what's necessary on a regular basis. If these Steelers continue to develop and become that, they will be able to point to their weekend here as a defining moment.