If Mitch Trubisky had played like this at the beginning of the regular season, he would still be the starting quarterback. And if the Steelers had played like this last week against the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium, they would still be in the thick of the playoff race. But as the saying goes every year at this time: "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, everyone would have a Merry Christmas."
With the wouldas and couldas out of the way, a quick return to reality shows the Steelers are now 6-8 following their 24-16 victory over Carolina on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, a win that had Trubisky's fingerprints all over it, a win that was keyed by a run defense that allowed 21 yards on 16 attempts to an opponent that had rushed for 223, 185, and 232 yards in three of its previous four games, a win where the Steelers were the foot doing the kicking one week after being the butt being kicked in a loss to the Ravens.
"Hard fought game," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I thought we played an attrition game today. We wanted to win the line of scrimmage on both sides, and I thought we were effective in doing so. I thought we ran it on offense and played behind our running game. I thought we did a good job of minimizing their running game on defense, and obviously it's big because we've been leaking there the last six quarters or so defensively in that area."
It was Tomlin's 160th career win and it came in his 255th game to make him the fifth-fastest coach in NFL history to reach that plateau, behind Don Shula in 219 games; George Halas in 236; Curly Lambeau in 243; and Bill Belichick in 254.
A potential sidebar to this slice of NFL history is that this historic win was achieved with a backup quarterback, and that the week of practice leading up to the game was exactly what that backup quarterback needed.
Trubisky emerged from the offseason, training camp, and the preseason as the starting quarterback for the regular season opener on Sept. 11, but despite having a resume that included a winning record as an NFL starter in Chicago, two separate playoff appearances as the Bears starting quarterback, and a Pro Bowl appearance, he was tentative in the pocket, hesitant to pull the trigger even though he was sufficiently experienced to have an understanding of what "open" in the NFL looked like.
That served as the basis for Tomlin's move to rookie Kenny Pickett at halftime of the season's fourth game – vs. the New York Jets on Oct. 2 – and since then Trubisky had made just two appearances. In those, he had played well in relief of an injured Pickett in an Oct. 16 win over Tampa Bay, and then he threw three costly interceptions in a 2-point loss to the Ravens on Dec. 11. Unsure of Pickett's availability because of the franchise's relationship with the neighbors at the UPMC Concussion Clinic and a by-the-book adherence to the league's protocol, Tomlin needed a way to choose between one guy who had just turned the ball over three times and another who had to be coated in rust because he hadn't taken a meaningful snap since August.
The practice reps were divided between Trubisky and Rudolph, and by the time the week's on-field work had concluded Tomlin had made a decision but was covering himself with a backup plan just in case. Trubisky got the start, but Rudolph also got some work to give him a chance to succeed if Trubisky didn't.
"It's really cut and dry," said Tomlin when asked what he wanted to see from the quarterbacks in the days leading up to the game in Charlotte. "I wanted to see Mitch's ability to bounce back from the last performance relative to taking care of the ball, and he displayed that. And I wanted to give Mason an opportunity to get some live varsity offensive reps, which he hadn't had a lot of opportunities to do in this regular season. To check his level of rust, his ability to anticipate, his timing with those guys in seemingly live action. I wanted to get a feel for all of that, and he did a good job in that regard."
Then the plan was to turn it over to the guys in the trenches, and each front made a statement early. The Panthers managed 6 yards rushing on their first 9 attempts, and when the Steelers drove 67 yards in 12 plays on their first possession to take a 7-0 lead, 8 of the 12 plays were runs, and cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. opted not to engage Najee Harris close to the goal line on the 7-yard touchdown. The proper tone had been set, and from that point it was only a couple of knucklehead penalties that threatened the Steelers' control throughout the game.
The Steelers played with a physical purpose throughout – as Tomlin phrased it, "we played an attrition game today" – and it showed up both in the offense electing to run quarterback sneaks on several short-yardage possession downs, and in the Panthers giving up hope of establishing a competent running attack. The Panthers ran it or attempted to run it 16 times and netted 21 yards, which made the Carolina offense totally one-dimensional but not to its advantage.
"I'm appreciative of the efforts," said Tomlin. "Obviously, we could have played smarter in some instances. Penalties are not how we choose to live, particularly some of the 15-yard variety, so hopefully there are opportunities to learn from that. It's good to learn with a 'W'."
The 15-yard penalties being referenced were on Diontae Johnson and then Marcus Allen, both in the third quarter. Johnson stood over a Carolina defensive back after converting a third-and-7 with an 8-yard catch for a first down at the Carolina 7-yard line and thus was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct that moved the offense back to the 22-yard line. Allen was shown by TV cameras in a couple of verbal altercations close to the Carolina sideline, and his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty nullified the impact of back-to-back sacks (Alex Highsmith and then Cam Heyward) that were about to lead to a Carolina punt and instead presented Carolina with a first-and-10 at the Steelers 34-yard line.
Cameras caught Tomlin having an animated one-way conversation with Johnson as the offense gathered at the 22-yard line who then took advantage of an opportunity to redeem himself and contributed a 9-yard catch to set up a third-and-1, which 4 running plays later became a sneak by Trubisky for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
About Allen's penalty, Tomlin said, "I don't know. It was in a dead period. We were making adjustments on the sideline and so I didn't have eyes on it. I don't know if any of us had eyes on it."
Maybe none of the coaches, but Cam Heyward has a knack for being on top of these kinds of things. And since Heyward had seen the impact of his sack nullified and then got to play an extra half-dozen snaps because Carolina had been gifted a fresh set of downs, this could fall under his purview, and then it would be unwise for Allen to ignore any advice that might come his way.
Anyway, the Steelers ended the day's work by doing what was necessary to win a game, and you could pick one of several different statistical categories to tell the story of why that happened as well as why it was a slog. But it's also fair to recognize this particular group as still being in a stage of development where every victory is hard-earned.
"Feels great," said Trubisky, who wasn't perfect but was flawless. "The only thing I cared about today was winning. Staying on the field, converting those third downs and helping this team win. It was an emphasis all week. I know I could protect the football, and that's what I did today. I'm just proud of all the other guys for sticking together, believing in me, letting me lead us today and coming away with the victory. It definitely feels good. It's awesome."
It's also a reminder of what they could have been, while at the same time hinting at what they might become.