INDIANAPOLIS – In terms of the complete body of work they submitted for our disapproval during the three-plus hours they spent on the rug inside Lucas Oil Field yesterday, the Steelers did not play well. They didn't play well in any of the three phases of the game, and they didn't play well against an opponent that recently has been making a weekly case for itself as the worst team in the league.
But over that same time period on that same rug against that same caliber of opponent, the Steelers did what good teams do.
Their 20-17 victory over the Colts here on Sunday was pockmarked with enough mistakes and misdeeds to sustain a decent losing streak, and again, they were stumbling and bumbling against a bad team, and they were doing it coming off their bye week. The whole thing smelled of overconfidence, but even the elevator operators inside Lucas Oil Field were telling their passengers that the outcome of this matchup would be sealed by the end of the third quarter. Not even the Colts liked the Colts to make this one a game.
But instead, the Steelers invoked the tried-and-true recipe for losing these types of games to bad teams, which served the dual purpose of putting them behind on the scoreboard and lifting the hopes of an opponent that should have had no hope of winning anything after the coin toss.
The offense turned the ball over two plays into the game, and then it spent close to the next hour being able to cross midfield just once against a Colts defense that came in ranked in the bottom three in the NFL in five different defensive statistical categories, including total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, and points allowed. In the meantime, the defense blew a coverage on a 60-yard catch-and-run by Donte Moncrief for a touchdown, and then the Colts added a field goal on a first half drive sustained by them converting 2-of-3 on third down.
The whole thing just seemed to have a familiar stench to it, and as the afternoon continued down this path, the Steelers lost cornerback Joe Haden to a broken fibula and safety Mike Mitchell to some sort of ankle injury. Mixed in there somewhere was another big play by the Colts for another quick score – this one a 61-yard catch-and-run by Chester Rogers – with the final yards gift-wrapped by a collision between Mitchell and cornerback Mike Hilton that cleared the final obstacles to the end zone.
The Steelers were losing players and losing time, and it seemed as though every step forward was being neutralized by some mistake or foolish penalty or a bad break on an official's call that was not reviewable.
But it was after Rogers' touchdown that the good started out-weighing the bad for the Steelers, and their comeback began to progress with fewer setbacks. The defense had allowed a big-play touchdown on Indianapolis' first possession of the second half, but then the offense answered with an eight-play, 77-yard touchdown drive of its own, a drive that included just a single third-down situation, which was a third-and-1 converted by a 5-yard run by Le'Veon Bell.
Game action photos from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 10 game against the Indianapolis Colts.
During his regular weekly news conference following the bye weekend, Mike Tomlin listed takeaways as one of the areas in which he was challenging the team to improve, and Ryan Shazier made a big play to deliver one in the form of a fourth quarter interception when the Steelers were trailing, 17-9.
"Honestly, on the interception it was a blitz – I was actually a part of the blitz," said Shazier of the play that came on a third-and-8 from the Indianapolis 13-yard line. "I couldn't find a lane to blitz through, and I know that (Jack) Doyle is one of his main targets, and (Jack) Doyle actually gets a lot of catches on check releases and things like that. Once I saw him slipping out a little bit I was like, 'Hey, I think he's going to him'. I was in position to make a tackle and then when the play presented itself, just got to take advantage of the opportunity."
By the "play presented itself," Shazier was referring to the ball glancing off Doyle's hands, whereupon he made a diving interception to give the ball to the offense at the Colts' 10-yard line. Three plays later, a "Ben being Ben" play resulted in the quarterback locating a wide open Vance McDonald along the sideline and 5 yards deep in the end zone for the touchdown that narrowed the Steelers deficit to a two-point conversion with just under 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
But even that turned out to be more exciting than necessary, because the Steelers first were forced to burn a timeout and then they took a delay of game penalty coming out of the timeout because of what was explained as an inability to get lined up properly for the play that had been called.
"We couldn't get lined up," said Tomlin. "We had a specialty play there called and just negligence. I accept responsibility for that. We couldn't get lined up even after the timeout. Some of those specialty plays, two-point plays and stuff are somewhat obscure. We didn't get it done."
When it came to getting lined up within the parameters of the play-clock, the Steelers didn't get it done, but they got it done from the 7-yard line when Martavis Bryant made the kind of combat catch in the end zone that previously has not been his strong suit. Tie game, 17-17, with 11:52 remaining.
The Steelers were even, but for the first time all afternoon they were even on the scoreboard in conjunction with them getting the better of the play on the field. On the next possession, a first-and-10 from the Indianapolis 25-yard line because a fourth-and-23 from the 12-yard line because of back-to-back sacks by Vince Williams and Stephon Tuitt.
Even after Chris Boswell uncharacteristically clanked a 37-yard field goal attempt off the upright to prevent the Steelers from taking their first lead of the afternoon with 3:28 remaining in the fourth quarter, the defense took the field and after yielding one first down to the Colts the unit stiffened to force a punt that got the ball back for Roethlisberger and the offense, albeit at the 15-yard line.
Eli Rogers got the necessary yardage to convert a third-and-2, and then the Steelers dug out of a second-and-17 hole with a pretty 19-yard catch-and-run by Bryant that converted a third-and-4. On the next play, from the 50-yard line, Roethlisberger shrugged off a sack to somehow see Antonio Brown cutting across the middle, and Brown did what he does in taking the short pass and turning it into a 32-yard gain to the Colts 18-yard line.
Forty-five seconds later, Boswell's 33-yard field goal ended it, and mixed in with the relief of avoiding a bitter defeat was an undeniable sense that the Steelers had come out the other end of this a better team for having met this challenge.
"We were tested, tested in a lot of ways. Often times, game circumstances do that to you," said Tomlin. "There's a lot of negativity to talk about, but we'll talk about that negativity with a win, and that's my preference. Good lessons learned – guys delivered in the critical moments, and that's exciting."
And in the final analysis, having guys deliver in the critical moments here yesterday will serve them better in the long run than a blowout victory.