Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Cardinals

GLENDALE, Az. – Just when it looked like James Washington had emerged as the Steelers' No. 1 receiver, with 20 receptions for a 20-yard average and three touchdowns over the previous five games, he caught only four passes for 33 yards here against the Cardinals.

Just when it seemed as though Minkah Fitzpatrick was going to challenge for the league lead in interceptions, what with notching four over a three-game span between late October and early November, he hasn't had once in any of the four previous games, including the one here against the Cardinals.

T.J. Watt arrived in Phoenix with sacks in 10 of the season's first 12 games, and then against a Cardinals offense that was ranked 27th in sacks allowed per pass attempt, he had only two tackles and was shut out in the sack category for the first time since Sept. 22.

What gives? Another instance of the Steelers crossing a couple of time zones and failing to take advantage of an opponent with a significantly worse record than their own? Nah, it's just an example of the Steelers doing what good teams do during a playoff push in December of an NFL regular season, which is to present their opponent with more than one player capable of making the kinds of big plays that win those games in December during a playoff push.

The Steelers defeated the Cardinals, 23-17, at State Farm Stadium to run their record to 8-5, to post their eighth victory in their last 10 games, and to hold onto the sixth seed in the AFC. And they did it with some different people stepping up in areas that previously had been handled by others.

Sticking with the categories outlined above, against the Cardinals it was Diontae Johnson who looked like, if not the offense's No. 1 wide receiver, then definitely one of the team's most versatile playmakers. Johnson caught six passes for 60 yards against the Cardinals, including a 2-yard touchdown that gave the Steelers a 20-10 lead late in the third quarter. Calling that play a 2-yard touchdown is accurate but fails miserably to describe the beauty and efficiency of the route Johnson ran, and then the pinpoint on-time throw by Devlin Hodges and the sure hands and nifty footwork by Johnson to complete the play.

In the fourth quarter, on the 77-yard drive that led to Chris Boswell's third field goal and a 23-17 lead for the Steelers with 1:42 to play, Johnson had a 16-yard run on a reverse for one first down and a 17-yard reception that converted a third-and-13 for another. And let's not forget his 85-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the first quarter that staked the Steelers to a 10-0 lead and gave the team the fast start it deemed mandatory to escape the desert with a victory.

Moving on. Yes, Fitzpatrick had a quiet afternoon with only one tackle, even though that one tackle was more precisely a tackle for loss that came on a second-and-goal from the Steelers 3-yard line and helped force the Cardinals to settle for a goal-to-go field goal. And yes, Fitzpatrick has had only one takeaway – a fumble recovery – in the last calendar month, but in the meantime Joe Haden has become an interception machine.

Starting with the Nov. 10 win over the Los Angeles Rams – a span of five games – Haden has four interceptions, including two against the Cardinals, one of which came with 48 seconds left and iced the outcome. His other interception of Kyler Murray came on a second-and-5 from the Steelers 26-yard line and ignited the offense on a 10-play, 73-yard drive ending in that pretty Hodges-to-Johnson touchdown. The sequence effectively turned a potential 13-13 tie into a 20-10 Steelers advantage.

As for Watt, he became another Steelers outside linebacker who had some fun playing hide-and-seek in a critical situation with a Cardinals quarterback who thought the ball he was throwing into the end zone was going to be caught for a touchdown. Shortly after the Steelers had taken that 20-10 lead, the Cardinals began a march from their 25-yard line to a fourth-and-2 at the Pittsburgh 6-yard line. When Murray escaped the pocket it sure seemed as though he easily could have run for the first down, but instead he tried to get the ball to tight end Maxx Williams. But, peek-a-boo-I-see-you, Watt appeared where he wasn't supposed to be, just as James Harrison had done to Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII, and intercepted Murray's pass in the end zone. Even though there was no 100-yard return for a touchdown this time, the emotional lift for the Steelers was a significant one.

While Watt is simply polishing a resume that deserves to place him on a very short list for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and while Haden simply is adding to a career that will judge him to be worthy of the seventh overall pick of an NFL Draft that he was back in 2010, Johnson is becoming what late wide receiver coach Darryl Drake forecast for him on the day the Steelers made him a third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Remember, just last week, Johnson looked to be guilty of giving up on a route that ended in an interception, and then the rookie receiver compounded the gaffe by not touching down the interceptor, which allowed him to get up and put together a 28-yard return. But instead of pouting or going in the tank, Johnson came back with a vengeance.

His 85-yard punt return for a touchdown was Antonio Brownesque pre-meltdown, his receiving touchdown showcased the route-running, hands, and feet that can lead to a nice career in the NFL for a guy at his position, and all of that coming on the heels of what had to be a frustrating and embarrassing afternoon vs. Cleveland displayed a mental toughness that should serve him well as he continues to carve himself a niche in this offense.

The Steelers won a game in Arizona yesterday that they really needed to have, which always is the most significant development to come from any regular season game. And the sweetener was how different players stepped up and shared the load to exemplify the team they have become.

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