When the Steelers assembled at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport for a Saturday morning flight that would take them to LAX on Oct. 12, included in the baggage they were transporting were a 1-4 record and the reality that the people who had occupied the top two lines of their depth chart at quarterback when this regular season began would be unable to help them on the trip.
The Steelers now are halfway through a season that has been filled with potholes and obstacles, some of their own doing and others seemingly a perverted gift from the football gods. They played that game against the Chargers without their top two quarterbacks, and at other times along the journey to where they are today, they’ve played without their starting cornerbacks, without their top two running backs. They’ve been forced to mix-and-match at wide receiver and on the defensive line. They’ve made two trips to California, played twice on Monday night, and twice on Sunday night, and just about the only thing they know for certain moving forward is that the next time they see either Ben Roethlisberger or Stephon Tuitt in full pads will be next summer at Saint Vincent College.
In a lot of ways, the journey hasn’t been kind to these Steelers, but after yesterday’s 26-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field, they are 4-4 and they are relevant. Their three-game winning streak that vaulted them from 1-4 to 4-4 says they are.
A couple of days before taking the field against the then 5-2 Colts, themselves an outfit having to navigate 2019 without their franchise quarterback, Coach Mike Tomlin was ruminating on what clawing to .500 would tell him about his team.
“That we have a chance to be relevant, and that’s what you ask for at the turn,” began Tomlin, “but as a sidebar: We’ve probably been through more than most who have a chance to be relevant, and hopefully that’s an asset to us. The scarring, the hardening, the things associated with our journey is an asset to us as we proceed.”
The victory over the Colts certainly contributed to the scarring, because there was nothing about it that was simple or easy. As has been the case recently, the Steelers offense was the culprit, with the unit’s specific crime on this afternoon being the typically lethal habit of settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.
Being down to Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds at running back is a reasonable explanation for 1-for-4 in the red zone and 1-for-3 in goal-to-go situations, but having a reasonable explanation is not a tiebreaker and so ending up 3-5 after a loss to the Colts would be heading in the opposite direction of the road to relevancy. And so, as they have often during this three-game winning streak and in the four victories over the five games since that 0-3 start, the Steelers manufactured a way to compensate, with their defense leading the way.
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s 96-yard pick-six, which was the third-longest in franchise history behind James Harrison’s 100-yarder in Super Bowl XLIII and Martin Kottler’s 99-yarder against the Chicago Cardinals in 1933, got the Steelers to a 10-10 tied early in the second quarter, and then Bud Dupree’s strip-sack-recovery early in the second half set up a short drive that ended with a 7-yard pass to Vance McDonald for a second touchdown. Outside of that, the Steelers offense came down to Chris Boswell’s right foot, and that appendage was good for 12 points on a 4-for-4 afternoon.
Which accounted for all of the scoring for the Steelers against the Colts. Which then left things up to their defense and the football gods. In that situation, Tomlin believed what his team had been through would help them get through.
“It’s like a boxer who has a (strong) chin and he knows it. You’re not knocking him out,” said Tomlin about the positives to be drawn from the team’s travails earlier in the season. “I’m a big combat sports fan, an MMA fan. There are some guys you’re going to have to beat by out-pointing them, because you’re not going to knock them out. And it’s because they have a general aptitude in that area, but they also have a knowledge of their strengths. When you’ve been through something and you consistently come through the other side, it strengthens you for the similar challenges that lie ahead. That’s just the reality of sport competition.”
The Steelers’ reality vs. the Colts was that they refused to be knocked out. When Samuels lost a fumble in the fourth quarter to set up a short Indianapolis touchdown drive, the Steelers denied the two-point conversion attempt to keep the deficit at 24-23 instead of 26-23. That allowed them to re-take the lead on another red zone field goal set up by a 40-yard completion to James Washington and a 24-yard pass interference penalty drawn by Diontae Johnson.
On Indianapolis’ final possession, the Steelers again seemed to be teetering on the edge, especially after a 35-yard pass interference penalty on Steven Nelson converted a third-and-10 and then a 19-yard completion from Brian Hoyer to Zach Pascal gave the Colts a first down at the Pittsburgh 31-yard line just outside the two-minute warning.
At that point defeat seemed inevitable, what with the Steelers down to one timeout and Rudolph a longshot to eat up the chunks of yardage the offense would need in a hurry-up situation to get Boswell in a spot where he would have a legitimate chance to match the inevitable go-ahead field goal Adam Vinatieri was going to kick momentarily.
But the defense rose up one final time, specifically Dupree, who dumped Marlon Mack for a 3-yard loss on a third-and-1 when the Colts were so close to being able to bleed the clock as they also got ever closer for Vinatieri to apply the dagger. That play made Vinatieri’s attempt a 43-yarder, and after a sloppy hold he missed the kick badly to the left. The guy who all but handed three Lombardis to the Patriots with his right foot this time helped the Steelers achieve a victory that put them on the path to relevancy.
And as they embark on the second half of their season and travel down that path, the Steelers will have been strengthened by their climb out of a 1-4 hole that began with a trip to Los Angeles.