Football is a 60-minute game divided into four quarters, and so the conventional wisdom is that a particular contest cannot be decided by something that happens early, that there is too much time and too many snaps for such a moment to actually be a turning point or a deciding factor.
So maybe what happened 44 seconds into Steelers-Colts last night wasn't the turning point of a game. Maybe it ends up being the turning point of a season instead.
Thirteen weekends into this 2015 NFL regular season, it's an accepted fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers are driven by their offense, which is triggered by Ben Roethlisberger. But if these Steelers are to have a 2015 postseason that threatens to extend itself toward February, it's their defense that will be responsible, not in a sense of carrying this team but in the sense of being more. More reliable, more efficient, more physical, more combative. More everything.
Eight days ago now, in Seattle, the Steelers defense bottomed out, or at least it felt that way in what turned out to be a 39-30 loss to the Seahawks. Beyond the points allowed, it all seemed so eerily similar to a preseason evening in Buffalo back in August, when four different quarterbacks who aren't that good completed 30-of-33 passes to a bunch of receivers you never heard of. Too easy. Way too easy. Maybe it wasn't Buffalo easy in Seattle, but easy enough that Mike Tomlin talked openly about exploring personnel changes in the secondary being "the prudent thing to do."
It was in this atmosphere that Sunday night's game began for the Steelers, with the whole "team at a crossroads notion" emphasized by Kansas City and the New York Jets posting victories earlier in the day to get themselves to 7-5 in an AFC where it's looking more and more like it's going to require 10-6 to qualify for the postseason. Steelers-Colts officially kicked off at 8:30 p.m. EST, and at 8:30.04 p.m. EST disaster already had struck.
The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field for a Week 13 matchup.
In a game they had to win to remain viable, to maintain a level of control over their playoff destiny, the Steelers turned the ball over on the opening kickoff. Jacoby Jones had it dislodged by Colts linebacker Jonathan Newsome, and when D'Joun Smith came out of a pile with it, Indianapolis had the ball at the Pittsburgh 11-yard line.
Maybe what happened next was a defining moment for this team this season, and maybe such a contention is nothing but hyperbole. But certainly what came next was a critical point in last night's game, one in which the team ending up on the winning side of 45-10 turned out to be the Steelers.
In the football business, what had happened to the Steelers when Jacoby Jones lost a fumble on the opening kickoff, just four seconds into the whole evening, is known as sudden-change. Instead of easing itself into the flow of a game expected to begin with Ben Roethlisberger and the offense going to work, the defense was thrown onto the field with only 33 feet between it and a 7-0 deficit.
"It's mentality," Mike Tomlin had said about his definition of good sudden-change defense. "It's not like the selection of plays or coverages or fronts that you choose from change, but it's just the defense responding to the adversity that the game of football presents. Often times on defense, you have no control over what conditions or circumstances with which you take the field. You have all the control over how you get off the field. So more than anything, it's those guys checking in with one another and agreeing to rise up and meet the adversity head-on and putting the fire out."
Frank Gore was stopped after a 1-yard run on first down. Matt Hasselbeck tried to get the ball to Andre Johnson on second down, but he found himself having to work too hard at staying out of Cam Heyward's clutches to do a very good job of it. Then on third down, Hasselbeck had time to survey the field, but his pass for tight end Coby Fleener near the goal line was intercepted by Jarvis Jones, a takeaway that came 44 seconds into the game, or 40 seconds after disaster seemingly struck.
Whew. Take a breath. That was close. Come to the sideline, and then four plays later, a DeAngelo Williams fumble was recovered by Colts defensive tackle Billy Winn, and the Steelers defense was thrown back onto the field at their own 25-yard line, again being asked to hold a fort where some fool kept leaving the gate unlocked.
This time Gore ripped off a 9-yard run on first down, but then on second down two young linebackers who were their most recent No. 1 draft picks – Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree – teamed up to dump Gore for a 3-yard loss. On third down, Hasselbeck couldn't find any receiver open for one of his preferred quick-decision throws, and after a short scramble he hit the deck 2 yards short of a first down as a preferred option to William Gay breaking him in half. Field goal by Adam Vinatieri, and after two turnovers had threatened to put them in a 14-0 hole within the game's first 150-plus seconds, the Steelers actually trailed by only 3-0.
From there it was Ben and Antonio and Martavis and Markus and a good bit of DeAngelo, and before you knew it, 45-10. Hello, 7-5. Hello, hope.
"Jarvis [Jones] had a big pick, and then I thought we stood up in the red zone," Heyward said afterward. "There are going to be games where you have to make stops."
Usually those are the games played after Dec. 1, and maybe this Steelers defense just changed the course of a season.