This time, it didn't deserve to be diluted by qualifiers, because the opponent wasn't the winless Browns or the Luck-less Colts. It wasn't Cody Kessler or Scott Tolzien at quarterback. Yesterday at Heinz Field, it was the New York Football Giants. It was Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. It was an 8-3 opponent riding a six-game winning streak that wasn't anyone's idea of an easy Sunday afternoon.
And yet again, for the third straight outing, the Steelers defense was a reason for the victory.
The victory in question was by 24-14 over the Giants, and it was a significant accomplishment on different levels. Starting with the arithmetic, the win was the Steelers' third in a row and raised their record to 7-5, which is good enough to maintain a numerical tie with the Baltimore Ravens atop the AFC North Division. And of course that is what's paramount at this time of the year as teams fight to remain relevant down the stretch of the playoff race, but there is another side to this as well for the Steelers.
That side, call it the aesthetic side, has to do with the continued development of a defense that no longer deserves to be viewed as a liability, that no longer is an element of the team that must be overcome on a weekly basis. The numerical aspect of the victory was good news for their present, and the aesthetic aspect bodes well for their immediate future.
There had been some steps taken by the defense in Cleveland and in Indianapolis, but those games were being viewed with an asterisk. Yes, they were back-to-back road wins over the course of five days, but those wins also were achieved over non-threatening opponents, i.e., teams with serious issues at quarterback. Yesterday against the Giants would be no such thing, and therefore promised to reveal some more about these 2016 Steelers.
Game action from Week 13 against the New York Giants on December 4, 2016
What it revealed is encouraging, because it marked the occasion of a third straight quality effort/performance by a defense that opened as a unit needing to show some significant improvement come late December if the Steelers were going to be good enough to still be playing come late January.
For a while, it seemed hopeless. There was that period when it couldn't stop the run, another period when opponents seemed to be playing pitch-and-catch in the backyard. There was a too-long stretch with the pass rush being unable to get a sniff of the opposing quarterback, and then there was that eight-game stretch where they managed only two interceptions.
Over the last three outings, the Steelers defense has been the polar opposite of hopeless, starting with basic production. Thirteen sacks, six takeaways. Four-for-10 in the red zone, and that 40 percent over a three-game stretch actually was an improvement over the NFL-best 41.7 percent the unit brought into the game against the Giants.
But there also was more to it than the statistical. It was harder to quantify, but it was real nonetheless. It has been described in this forum as "growing teeth," and that process continued and even intensified during the win over the Giants. There were a couple of sacks of Eli Manning, but also a safety created by a holding call in the end zone to go along with some relatively consistent pressure. They intercepted him twice, but broke up another seven passes. They were physical. Aggressive. Allowed only one run of any distance. No points in the first half, and no more than one score in any of the four quarters.
"When you play a guy as savvy and as seasoned as Eli (Manning)," said Coach Mike Tomlin, "both (coverage and pressure) are going to be required. You can't lean on one. If you're rushing great and your coverage isn't tight, he's going to make quick decisions. If your rush isn't getting there, he's going to find people as they come open extended. I thought that we did both above the line today. And I thought collectively, that's what created the atmosphere."
The atmosphere was an uncomfortable one for the Giants, and then that created some opportunities for the Steelers to make plays. As usual, William Gay was among those who took advantage, by drawing the safety and then also recording his fifth sack of the season. Sean Davis came away with his first NFL interception and continued to add to his resume of big hits. Mike Mitchell was a physical presence in the secondary. And Ryan Shazier authored the play that was nothing less than the turning point in the game.
Timmons' interception – on a second-and-4 from the Pittsburgh 9-yard line – initially protected a 5-0 lead and then his 58-yard return was the springboard for the touchdown that made it 11-0. Manning thought he had tight end Larry Donnell open in the end zone, and from an upper vantage point inside Heinz Field it certainly appeared as though he did. But the way Timmons flashed across the field indicated he had seen what he was supposed to see in order to understand what the offense was trying to do, and then he made an athletic play on the football.
"I just think we're finding our rhythm," said Tomlin. "I think we're gaining continuity with the mix of guys who are playing. The young guys are growing up. And by the young guys I mean (Javon) Hargrave, (Artie) Burns, and (Sean) Davis. But just generally, I think it's about the cohesion, and the guys are gaining rhythm in that way, in terms of not only knowing what they're doing but knowing what's going on around them. That allows them to play harder and faster, and that's what we need. That produces the atmosphere where big things happen for us."
It took awhile, and the process had its painful moments, but if the Steelers defense really has turned a corner, it's not too late.