During the time they spent at Heinz Field for training camp, they worked on countless things. From the basics of their offense, defense, and special teams, to critical situations that arise within each phase. Possession downs, red zone, short yardage, goal-line. They worked on all of that, and devoted multiple days to it. Every minor detail was repped.
But what an NFL team needs most at the start of each season cannot be practiced or simulated in any way. It has to be developed by real people in real situations in real time. That's the ability to find a way a game when it's there to be won.
It's a critical characteristic every team that grows into a contender develops during the early stages of a particular season. It's not possible or realistic to expect a team to come out of the gate firing on all cylinders and then maintain that break-neck pace through 17 weeks of the regular season. There are going to be times when the complete performance in all three phases falls short of the standard, but even on those kinds of days it's possible for a good team, a resilient team, the kind of team capable of developing into something special to find a way to win the game.
Do what's necessary, get the win, move on and continue to work to improve, because while the key is to be playing your best down the stretch of the regular season, your record has to be good enough to have kept you relevant to that point or it's all going to be for naught.
The Steelers are 1-0 today because they found a way to win Monday night at MetLife Stadium. The opponent was the New York Giants, and the final score was 26-16, and what proves it was one of those occasions when the Steelers did just enough to find a way to get out of New Jersey with a victory is that for every impressive element of their performance that can be cited there is a corresponding depressing one to counterbalance the euphoria.
Even Coach Mike Tomlin was riding the see-saw when he met the media via Zoom following the game.
"I thought the guys brought energy. I thought we could have played better," said Tomlin. "There was some sloppiness that's kind of reflective of where we are (in our development). We dropped a punt there early. We got penalized (on defense) on a third-and-long and extended their drive. They scored on the next play. We kicked off out of bounds. We didn't start with great fluidity on offense. All of those things are reasonable to expect …"
Yes, it's reasonable to expect every team to wade through that quagmire in the early stages of every regular season, even regular seasons that follow the full complement of preseason games. Since this one did not include any tune-up opportunities, the rough patches were exacerbated and the need to overcome those and just find a way was emphasized.
That the Steelers were able to do find a way was the most significant thing to come out of the night's work, even though their immediate future will be complicated by a couple of injuries to offensive linemen that sounded ominous when chronicled by Tomlin in the postgame. Starting right tackle Zach Banner injured a knee that brought tears to his eyes and had teammates lining up to console him as he sat on the bench waiting to be driven into the locker room. Stefan Wisniewski's injury was described by Tomlin as a "pectoral," which was the description last year when Stephon Tuitt turned out to be finished for the season.
Losing either of those players will be a body blow, and losing both could be catastrophic because of the peril in which it would place their 38-year-old quarterback.
Speaking of Ben Roethlisberger, he apparently kept his promise of being jittery at the start of his first meaningful snaps behind center in 364 days, and the corresponding rust associated with such a lengthy layoff took almost a full half of football to knock off. But when it was, what was under that rust was shiny, like new.
During an 85-second span at the end of the first half that began with the Steelers trailing, 10-9, and ended with them in the lead, 16-10, Roethlisberger drove the team 78 yards in eight plays. He completed 5-of-7 passes for 67 of the yards, and he scrambled for the other 11. And the final 13 yards of the 78 came on a pass to James Washington, who broke one tackle and then powered through another to get the ball into the end zone.
Going to the scorecard, there's plenty for those who live in their fears to justify that path, just as there is plenty for those who choose to view the entire exercise through rose-colored glasses.
Going negative first, special teams generally were awful. Diontae Johnson muffed a punt. Chris Boswell missed an extra point and also committed the placekicker's mortal sin by kicking off out of bounds, which means the receiving team starts at the 40-yard line instead of the 25-yard line, and Jabrill Peppers returned three of Dustin Colquitt's punts for 39 yards. The defense contributed some on this side of the ledger by allowing a way-too-easy 70-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter and too often seemed to be observing the Giants convert 7-of-9 third-down situations in the second half. As for the offense, there were three three-and-outs in the first half, Benny Snell had the ball ripped away at the end of a 21-yard run, and Roethlisberger was under too much pressure, was hit too many times, and had too many defenders around his knees and feet while he was in the pocket.
But then they compensated. The defense responded to Johnson's fumbled punt by holding the Giants to a field goal. After one annoying second-half drive in which the Giants converted four third-down situations and a fourth-down situation, a hustle play by Bud Dupree created a flutterball that dropped into Cam Heyward's hands for an interception at the goal line. Maybe the offense did go three-and-out too many times, but the unit also was 3-for-4 in the red zone. If Snell needs to be more careful with the ball at the end of his runs, he did come off the bench to average 5.9 a carry on the way to 113 for the game, and besides, JuJu Smith-Schuster saved him by going head-first into a pile of Giants defenders and coming out with his fumble to extend a drive that ended with a field goal.
"I thought that they showed their mettle," said Tomlin about his players. "I think that they were physically tough and mentally tough. We have to do some things better. We knew we weren't going to be perfect tonight. We talked about that openly last night in preparation for this opportunity, but there is more meat on the bone. I appreciate the efforts. We just have to search for a higher ceiling in terms of quality of play."
Being that it was just the opening game of a 16-game regular season, the Steelers were going to be searching for that ceiling no matter what happened on Monday night. It says something about them that they get to do it at 1-0 instead of 0-1.