This time, there were no qualifiers. No way to mitigate things based on the caliber of the competition. The opposition’s starting quarterback, leading rusher, and leading receiver from a year ago all were healthy and in uniform, so injuries to critical personnel couldn’t be used as an excuse. And the architect of it all still was orchestrating it all and calling the plays.
The Los Angeles Rams offense scored 30-plus points in 12 of its 16 regular season games in 2018. The unit ranked second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns, eighth in passing touchdowns, and third in points scored. Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, Todd Gurley, and Robert Woods all were on the field for as many plays as Coach Sean McVay desired yesterday, and he was the man pulling the strings on all of it at Heinz Field.
But if the three-and-a-half hour exercise against the defending NFC Champions had been scored like a boxing match the bout would’ve been stopped and the outcome declared a TKO. The Steelers defense was that dominant.
Since it was scored as a football game, the Steelers were the victors, 17-12, but beyond those numbers there were these facts:
The Rams offense had 15 possessions and didn’t score a touchdown. In fact, only once did the Rams offense penetrate the Steelers 20-yard line, and on that occasion the outcome was a red zone field goal. The unit was 1-for-14 on third downs and 0-for-2 on fourth downs, which means the Rams were forced to punt eight times. The Steelers sacked Goff four times and all told hit him nine times. They intercepted him twice, and with two fumble recoveries the Steelers defense finished with four takeaways, with a fifth coming on another interception by special teams during an attempted fake punt.
In return for their cross-country flight, the Rams managed a defensive touchdown that came off a return of an errant snap to Mason Rudolph when he was in the shotgun formation, the aforementioned red zone field goal, and a sack of Rudolph by Aaron Donald in the end zone for a safety. In terms of the point production for the Rams offense, it was the unit’s lowest output of the season.
One more statistic before moving away from the numbers: Cooper Kupp arrived for yesterday’s game as the Rams’ leading receiver with 58 catches and the team’s leader in receiving touchdowns with five. He also is, or at least he was before going against the Steelers defense, the preeminent third-down threat in all of football, with 21 catches for 366 yards, an eye-popping 17.4 yards per catch, and three touchdowns on third downs. Against the Steelers, he finished with zero receptions on four targets. Zero. As in none.
The victory was the Steelers’ fourth in a row, their fifth in the last six games after an 0-3 start, and their 5-4 record has them as the No. 6 team in the AFC. And it should be remembered that six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs. The Steelers have done all of this since losing their franchise quarterback for the season to a right elbow injury that required surgery, and they have done all of this in the midst of a rash of other injuries that has had them playing without their top two running backs for the last two weeks.
As recently as one calendar year ago, the Steelers were seen as an outfit totally dependent on their offense to win games, an outfit with a defense that was deficient to put it kindly, a defense that last year tied a franchise record for fewest interceptions in a season with eight and was ranked 28th in the NFL in takeaways with just 15.
Over just a single offseason, the Steelers have added teeth to their defense and it has been biting opponents in the butt and leaving a mark. The big moves would be identified as the trade up in the first round of last April’s draft that added inside linebacker Devin Bush, and the trade of a future first-round pick to Miami for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Combine that with the signings of unrestricted free agents Steven Nelson and Mark Barron and having their patience with Bud Dupree paying big dividends this season, and General Manager Kevin Colbert, Coach Mike Tomlin, and defensive coordinator Keith Butler have had their IQs soar significantly in the eyes of even the most dubious Steelers fans.
The unit has 26 takeaways, 33 sacks and three defensive touchdowns so far in its nine games this season, and just as significant as the numbers has been the timing of the big plays. Cam Sutton and Fitzpatrick now each have made an interception that iced the outcome of a victory, and both of Fitzpatrick’s defensive touchdowns have brought the Steelers into a tie during the early stages of a game in which they had fallen behind.
And another factor to be taken into account is the reality of the moments in which the Steelers defense has turned in its significant plays. In the very early stages of the game against the Rams, for example, it was evident that the team’s offense was simply along for the ride, that yards, let alone points, were going to be hard to come by, and while the defense wouldn’t necessarily have to go it alone the unit was going to have to carry the bulk of the load.
It was up to the challenge. During a second half in which the Steelers scored only three points and made five first downs over seven possessions, the team’s defense was even more dominant that it was in the first half. The Rams, not the Bengals or the Dolphins or the Colts without Andrew Luck and/or Jacoby Brissett, but the Rams who had ridden their offense to a berth in the most recent Super Bowl played, had seven possessions in the second half, and those ended this way: four turnovers that came on three interceptions and a turnover on downs when Terrell Edmunds broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone, the aforementioned red zone field goal, and two punts.
“I feel like everybody believes they can be the one to make a play,” said Joe Haden. “I think every one of the 11 people out their thinks they are going to get a strip-sack, a pick, or punch the ball out. I think we are just talking it up. We keep talking it into existence, like we are going to be the ones to win this game for the team. We’re going to get the ball back to the offense. Let’s us score. If you listen to the chatter on the sideline, everyone is up. I’m looking at players saying, ‘It’s (going to be) me.’ Then others say, ‘No, I’m about to make it.’ Everybody is just feeling it and knowing that if everyone is on their game, we can make plays.”
Everyone is feeling it, and the defense continues to make plays to win games for the team, and those wins have salvaged what looked like a lost season and put them right back into the thick of the playoff hunt.
At 0-3, the Steelers were a team without an identity, but now at 5-4 they have one. This is their new normal. It’s what they do now. It has become who they are.