It is 12 games into the 2019 regular season, and as improbable as it is, the Steelers are in the AFC playoff picture. They are in the playoff picture despite having played all but six quarters of said regular season without Ben Roethlisberger but with offensive personnel and a scheme crafted specifically to maximize his skill-set. They have had to adapt on the fly, without a training camp to formulate a new plan and without a preseason to serve as a proving ground both for that plan and for the players to be charged with implementing it.
On Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers took care of some important items of business, chief among those being their 20-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns. That was Job 1 because the business of professional football is winning, and this particular win preserved their spot as the current sixth seed in the AFC and all but eliminated their vanquished division rivals from the competition. The sweetener was that the victory sent a message to the team from Northeast Ohio that there is a significant difference between being favored to beat the Steelers at Heinz Field and actually defeating the Steelers at Heinz Field.
But beyond the mathematics of being 7-5 today because of the victory, a couple of things happened over the course of that game to advance the Steelers further along in the process of being what they’re going to need to be to continue their quest for a spot in the postseason. Among those things were finding a go-to receiver and a No. 1 running back, and by the end of their win over the Browns, James Washington and Benny Snell had stated rather compelling cases to have their names attached to those roles.
At different times so far this season, the receivers who may have been doing enough to be open had Roethlisberger still been the starting quarterback have had trouble creating the kind of separation necessary for the passing game to be successful with Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges at the position instead. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a proven commodity at wide receiver, but the combination of a concussion and a knee injury sustained against the Browns has removed him from the picture for the last couple of weeks, and the same goes for running back James Conner and the injured shoulder that has sidelined him for four of the last five games.
Both Pro Bowl players with Roethlisberger healthy, Smith-Schuster and Conner have had some difficulty re-establishing themselves as that with him on injured reserve.
Just like the Steelers needed someone to step in for Roethlisberger, they needed guys to take over for Smith-Schuster and Conner, at least in the short term, because there are only a limited number of NFL games that can be won without a professional caliber offense. Enter Washington and Snell. And what adds more credence to their claims on those important roles is that Sunday against the Browns wasn’t the first time they performed to the level of those job descriptions.
In Cincinnati a week ago, Washington made a big play almost immediately after Coach Mike Tomlin made the switch from Rudolph to Hodges early in the third quarter. He caught a pass over the middle in stride, used a stiff-arm to plant B.W. Webb on the turf and completed the 79-yard catch-and-run for the touchdown that gave the Steelers a lead three plays after a change at quarterback and a burst of confidence that it was the right move at the correct time.
In that same game, Snell had 98 yards on 21 carries, with a 21-yard burst setting up a Chris Boswell field goal, and then a 13-yard gain inside the two-minute warning in which he had the presence of mind to stay in-bounds and give himself up before crossing the goal line to keep the clock running and send the Steelers into victory formation.
Against the Browns, both players built upon their resumes.
Washington made a 31-yard combat catch down the left sideline early in the second quarter that converted a third-and-9 and sent the Steelers toward their first score of the game – a 39-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that cut the Browns lead to 10-3. And then on the Steelers’ next possession, Washington made another combat catch in the end zone for the tying touchdown despite pass interference by cornerback T.J. Carrie.
Snell’s contributions were 63 yards rushing on 16 carries, a 1-yard touchdown that came on the heels of Washington’s catch to give the Steelers a lead they would not surrender, and to help make sure it was a lead they would not surrender he got the team out of a deep hole with an 11-yard run on first-and-10 from its own 1-yard line with 5:35 remaining in the game.
Over the last two weeks, the contributions by Washington and Snell have given the offense some traction as it continues to search for ways to complement a defense that is championship-caliber. And to use numbers to support that statement, in the 10 full games the team has had to play this season without Roethlisberger, the unit is first in the NFL in takeaways with 28; first in hits on the quarterback with 78; first in passes defensed with 65; first in forced fumbles with 17; first in fumble recoveries with 13; second in interceptions with 15; second in sacks with 38; and tied for third in defensive touchdowns with three.
Clearly, the defense is able to hold up its end. And based on the last two games, strides are being made toward finding answers to the issues at wide receiver and running back, too.