INDIANAPOLIS – There's an old saying in football that you're one play away from being a starter when you're a backup.
That proved to be the case for Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland Monday night for the Steelers in their 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts here at Lucas Oil Stadium.
With Jaylen Warren already sidelined with a hamstring injury, Snell and McFarland figured to factor into this game.
But when Najee Harris went down in the second quarter with an abdominal injury, opportunity became opportunities.
And Snell and McFarland answered the bell.
Snell, who didn't have a carry this season before this game, finished with 12 carries for 62 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. He also caught a pass for six yards.
But at least Snell had been active in all of the Steelers' previous 10 games, contributing in a big way on special teams.
McFarland was called up off the practice squad earlier in the day and saw his first action of any type this season. He finished with six carries for 30 yards, adding 11 yards on two receptions, as well.
Together, they helped the Steelers put together another strong rushing effort, as the team ground out 172 yards on 36 carries.
"Najee came to us before the game and told us we were going to have to make plays and step up. I thought we did that," said McFarland.
It was very much needed.
The Steelers' rushing attack has taken off over the past four games, as they've averaged 158.8 yards per game on the ground in that span.
It hasn't always led to wins, but running the ball like that gives this team a lot of confidence.
That's why when the Colts went ahead 17-16 late in the third quarter, the Steelers didn't panic.
"We knew we could. That came from us being able to run the ball," said Steelers guard Kevin Dotson. "We knew if we could run the ball, we could win the game. We didn't get rattled when it happened. We cut our eyelids off, like Coach (Mike Tomlin) says. In that situation, you've got to keep going."
It also made things easier for rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Pickett missed on his first pass on that game-winning possession and didn't have a completion in the third quarter. But he then hit five of his next six passes, taking the Steelers down the field methodically to go ahead.
He converted a third-and-9 pass to rookie wide receiver George Pickens and a third-and-6 pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth to keep the drive alive.
The Steelers also had four carries for 25 yards on the ground during that drive, including Snell scoring from the 2 on third down.
The offensive line was winning up front.
"We lean on those guys. We go the way those guys go," said Pickett. "Our backs did a phenomenal job, the tight ends in the run game. There is a lot that goes into it, but that group we have up front, man, we're pretty tight. They're real tight together. They have great continuity. You know, it's great to see from early in the season what people were saying to now and how great those guys are playing. You know, (I'm) incredibly proud to be their quarterback and play with them."
It was a big moment. Can it lead to bigger and better things? We'll see. But as the weather turns, it's nice to have that kind of running game -- regardless of the back -- to lean on.
The Colts entered this game allowing a very solid 3.7 yards per rushing attempt. The Steelers averaged 4.8 yards per attempt.
"We wanted to make a statement by running the ball," said wide receiver Diontae Johnson. "Coach has been harping on it all week. Keep running the ball down the field, making sure we hold our blocks. I feel like the o-line did a good job."
These kind of games could keep coming as this line continues to grow.
"It felt like this ground game was right there for a while. That's not even our best game," said Dotson. "We could have had more. I think it's just going to keep improving. The more we can have these type of games, the more we'll feel better about running the ball. That just opens up everything. You see how it opens up the passing game. I feel like if we had clicked on everything in this game, it would have been a blowout. We've got to keep it going."
• It was a big game for Pickett, as well. The third quarter was one to forget as he missed on a couple of third-down passes.
But with the game on the line, he delivered his first career fourth-quarter comeback.
"Just making the right decisions and being poised in the pocket," Johnson said of his quarterback. "He's shown he can do that consistently. We've all just got to continue to rally around him."
Pickett suggested the play on which Snell scored the go-ahead score.
"I feel like that play, just watching from tape, you know, all week, simple play, but something I felt like if we gave it a shot, I think we would've been successful," Pickett said. "We were in four-down territory. Yeah, so we were going to go for it again on the next play if we didn't get it. I felt confident, real confident, with that play and real happy we got to the end zone."
• So, can we now look at last week's loss to the Bengals as an outlier for this defense with T.J. Watt back?
In four games with Watt this season, the defense has allowed 20, 10, 37 and now 17 points.
And in this game, the defense did the job in the closing moments, turning the Colts over on downs to seal the victory.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 12 game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium
"When our backs are against the wall, we've got to find a way," said Watt, who drew a lot of attention from the Colts. "We pride ourselves in wanting to be good as a defensive group to finish a game off. I'm glad we did."
Alex Highsmith continues to play at a Pro Bowl pace opposite Watt.
Highsmith made two big plays on that final possession for the Colts. First, he had a sack that put Indianapolis behind the chains. Then, he stopped Jonathan Taylor on third-and-3 for no gain, forcing a fourth down pass that was broken up by Cam Sutton and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
"Alex is legit," said Tomlin. "I think everybody knows that. But at the same time, it's good to have old 90 (Watt) on the opposite side of you. I think that helps."
It helps, but Highsmith now has 10 sacks in 11 games this season.
• The kickoff coverage by the Steelers in this game was, well, not great.
With Miles Boykin, Warren and Robert Spillane not available because of injuries, there were some players in that unit that aren't typically out there.
But that's no excuse for giving up some big returns, the biggest being an 89-yarder to open the second half that ignited the Colts.
"Our kickoff unit has to be better," Tomlin said. "I thought that was a catalyst for whatever got started with them in the second half; the field position component of it was a big negative. We have got to get better there."
That's also a spot where the Steelers miss Chris Boswell. Matthew Wright was solid again putting the ball through the uprights – including making a 52-yard field goal – but he doesn't necessarily get the same hang time on kickoffs that Boswell does.
• Tomlin likes to preach to his team that they have to defend "every blade of grass." His thought on that is that if there's still a play remaining, it's a play that can result in the other team not scoring.
That turned out to be the case after Sutton jumped offside on an Indianapolis field goal attempt to give the Colts a first down and then Fitzpatrick was penalized for pass interference to put the ball at the 1.
Colts quarterback Matt Ryan and Taylor couldn't complete a handoff at the 1, and Chris Wormley outfought Ryan on the ground for the loose ball.
"Yep. You can't give up," said Wormley, noting that Taylor entered this game with eight fumbles in his three-year career. "They're really good down in that area with a guy like Taylor. But we know he's a fumbler. He fumbled in college. He fumbled a lot in his first two years in the league. Well, he fumbled again. Whether it was the quarterback's fault or his fault, there was a bad exchange and we came up with the big play."
Now, the Colts wound up scoring a go-ahead touchdown on their next possession, but they were turned away in that situation because the defense didn't just simply concede the touchdown.
• At 4-7, the Steelers keep their season alive.
If they can find a way to win next week in Atlanta on a short week to get to 5-7, it will make things interesting down the stretch.
"If you go 3-8, it's looking bleak," Wormley admitted. "Being 4-7, going into another hostile environment in Atlanta on a short week, we've got to be ready, rally the boys and stack another win. We haven't done that all season."
The situation is what it is. The Steelers realize they can't do anything about what's already happened. But they can control what happens from here on out.
And with the offense showing serious signs of turning things around, this team could make some noise down the stretch.
• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast
"We have to. Plain and simple, we have to," said Watt.
• With Spillane out, Devin Bush and Myles Jack didn't have the three-man rotation the Steelers have been using at inside linebacker with which to deal.
Bush led the team with eight tackles and also had a pass defensed, while Jack had seven tackles. They also played a large part in helping keep Taylor bottled up.
Taylor finished with 86 yards on 20 carries, but his long run was 13 yards.
It's tough to completely shut down a back as talented as Taylor, but the Steelers didn't let him run wild.
• The Steelers were once again good on third downs on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they were 7 of 14 on conversions. Defensively, they allowed the Colts to convert just 3 of 12 attempts.
Couple that with winning the turnover battle 2-0, and you'll be tough to beat.
• Things could have gone south for the Steelers are another third quarter in which they didn't have a first down, something that happened to them last week against Cincinnati, as well.
They had their only two three-and-out offensive series back-to-back in the third quarter.
The plays were there, however. They just didn't make them.
"We had the two three-and-outs, you know, slow start, just based off execution alone, nothing schematically, nothing Xs and Os wise, just flat-out us executing," Pickett said. "I've got to make throws. We've got to make plays. We would've been on the move just like we were in the first half."
Those lulls are something this offense still needs to eliminate.
But the offense showed it could respond in a tough situation.
"The fight and the composure. In a game like this, I feel like when the moment got harder, we kind of stepped up more," said Pickens. "That could be any game. But tonight, when the moment got hard, we stepped up more."
• The Steelers are now 19-3 on Monday Night Football under Tomlin.
That can't be an accident.
"That's pretty damn good. Maybe it's that extra day of preparation," Wormley said. "I think when all eyes are on you, usually for a regional game, it's just the Steelers fans and that team we're playing. But on a national stage, the lights are on, your peers are watching. It's an added bonus to be able to make a play. It was fun."
It didn't hurt in this game that there was a large contingent of Steelers fans in attendance.
In fact, as the Colts were trying to maneuver down the field in the closing moments in an attempt to tie the game, there were audible chants of "defense."
That has to be disheartening for the home team.
"It was great," Wormley said. "It's not too far. On that last drive, you could tell it wasn't just Indy fans out there. It was loud. There were a lot of Terrible Towels. Steelers fans obviously travel well. For a game like this, it was pretty cool."