The Steelers didn't have their full defensive package available to them, but they're inching closer.
And Sunday's 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium showed just what this defense can look like when it's clicking.
The Saints had just 186 total yards. They were 3 of 12 on third downs and came up short on a fourth-down try, as well. They managed just 29 yards rushing. It was a pretty dominant performance.
Thing is, the defense can be even better. The players learned late Saturday afternoon they would be without All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had an appendectomy. So, the Steelers were getting All-Pro and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and veteran safety Damontae Kazee back off of the Reserve/Injured List.
But they lost their playmaker on the back end of the defense.
Things could have gone badly if the Steelers weren't resilient or if they didn't believe head coach Mike Tomlin's next-man-up mantra.
Instead, they went out and played their most dominant defensive effort of the year.
"I don't think it was just T.J. T.J. and Kazee, they both play with great energy," said defensive tackle Cam Heyward. "Just having more of our defenders back, I know we lost Minkah before the game, but it's a breath of fresh air to have them back. Getting guys like Larry (Ogunjobi) and Myles (Jack) healthy was huge. The more guys we can add to the party, the more we're going to be successful moving forward."
The Steelers might have fired a shot across the bow of the rest of the league with this performance.
The Saints entered this game averaging 27 points per game in Andy Dalton's six starts. They could have played eight quarters against the Steelers and they wouldn't have reached that total.
Outside of a two-minute drill at the end of the first half, New Orleans just couldn't get anything going.
The Saints gained 56 yards – they also got 15 yards via a questionable unnecessary roughness call on Kazee – and had four first downs on their six plays of that possession. On their other nine possessions, they gained 107 yards on 40 plays and had six first downs.
In the second half of a game that was tied at 10-10 after two quarters, the Saints' five possessions went punt, punt, interception, turnover on downs and interception.
The offense played a part in that, as well, holding onto the ball for nearly 39 minutes. But the defense kept forcing the Saints off the field.
"We knew they were a good run defense," said Saints head coach Dennis Allen. And we knew they were going to have some juice with (Watt) back out there. But we felt we would be able to run the ball better than we did. We knew it would be tough, but we felt we could run it better than we did."
Certainly, the Saints were banged up on their offensive line. But it might not have mattered against this defense on this day.
In fact, this was the second time the Steelers have pitched a shutout in the second half of a game in their past three outings, also having done so in Miami.
"They didn't score in the second half, huh? That's impressive," said cornerback Levi Wallace, who had one interception and made a play on the ball that led to Kazee's interception, as well. "That's the second time we've done that. We did that down in Miami, as well. It shows the work we put in during the bye week. You can see guys buying into what the coaches are teaching. We've just got to go out and execute it."
If they keep doing that, stay healthy and the offense continues to evolve, things could look much different in the second half of this season.
It's what Tomlin had planned at the outset of this season – before Watt was injured in the regular season opener.
"It's good to get the job done," Tomlin said. "We don't take it for granted. We appreciate it. We understand it's nothing mystical. It's good work. It's minimizing negativity, staying on schedule on offense, possessing the ball, running the ball, winning possession downs on defense."
• The Saints weren't surprised by Watt's return, even though he wasn't activated until Saturday.
They rolled double teams his way all day.
Not coincidentally, Alex Highsmith had two sacks, giving him five in the two games in which he's played with Watt.
"It was nice out there. The crowd was into it," said Highsmith, who now has 8.5 sacks this season. "First couple of plays in the game, he was in the backfield making plays, making his presence felt immediately. A guy like him, it was awesome to have him back."
Highsmith getting multiple sacks while Watt was drawing so much attention was good to see. Opponents will have to pick their poison.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 10 game against the New Orleans Saints at Acrisure Stadium
"You can't block everyone up front," said Watt. "If you're one-dimensional, someone is going to get through. It's just a matter of time. Alex got through quickly and was able to up the game. He deserves it. He works his (butt) off."
• If the winning formula for this game sounds familiar, it's because it's similar to the one the Steelers used in 2019 when Ben Roethlisberger was out for the final 14 games of the season.
Control the ball, play good defense, win the turnover battle.
That's a tried and true formula to winning football games that has been around as long as the game has been played.
• The Steelers ran the ball for more than 200 yards for the first time since the 2016 season.
They had broken 190 yards a couple of times during that span – including against the Browns last season – but hadn't gotten over the 200-yard mark.
And you'd better believe it felt good for the offensive line.
"Man, (it's) definitely more fun run blocking. And that's coming from a left tackle," said left tackle Dan Moore.
Thing is, when a team busts off multiple big runs as the Steelers did in this game, it's more than just the offensive line doing the job. The receivers and other backs are involved, as well. In this game, Najee Harris had a 36-yard run, Kenny Pickett a 23-yarder, George Pickens a 22-yarder and Jaylen Warren a 21-yard scamper.
That was more runs of over 20 yards than the Steelers had all season coming into this game. Prior to this game, their long run for the season was a 19-yard run by Warren.
"We always knew what it could be," center Mason Cole said of the running game. "This is what we've wanted the last eight weeks. It hasn't been that way. It felt like were close, but we kept losing games."
Run the ball like that, and you'll win more than you lose.
And the long runs become springboards. Harris' 36-yard run in the first quarter was a tone setter, as he ran through a couple of tackle attempts, ran over a defensive back in the secondary and just kept churning.
By the end of the run, Pickett was running downfield trying to set a block for him.
"I thought he was going to get tackled, and I saw him pop up," Pickett said. "I was like, damn, he might be gone. I got to get a block. He almost made it. It was an awesome play."
• The way the Steelers were running the ball, it's somewhat surprising the run-pass ratio was as close as it turned out to be. The Steelers ran the ball 43 times, including eight carries by Pickett, at least six of which were scrambles, and threw it 30 times. Pickett also was sacked six times.
The Steelers averaged 5.0 yards rushing per attempt in this game. If it's working like that, keep doing it until the other team consistently stops it.
• There was some question earlier this week if Warren would somehow supplant Harris as the Steelers' lead running back. But this game was more of the same for the duo.
In fact, this is kind of how things probably should look. Harris had 20 carries for 99 yards. Warren had nine attempts for 37 yards and three catches for 40 yards, including two big catches in the fourth quarter that helped the Steelers ice the game away.
Both are valuable. Both are good. And, you're allowed to use both.
"They came in and told me this year they were going to try to take some pressure off me. 'We can't put you on the field all the plays we did last year.'" Harris said. "Him coming in and making those two plays, it helps out a lot."
• With Chase Claypool now in Chicago, traded just before the bye week, this was the Steelers' first game without him.
While the team didn't throw the ball as much in this game as it had prior to the bye, the three leading receivers in terms of targets were Pat Freiermuth (7), Diontae Johnson (5) and Pickens (4). Pickens also had two rushing attempts for 23 yards and a touchdown.
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The rest of the targets were scattered among the remainder of the roster.
• The last time the Steelers beat the Saints came Nov. 14, 2006 at Heinz Field.
That spurred the Steelers, who were 2-6 entering the game, to a 6-2 second half to finish 8-8.
This is not saying that's going to happen again, but the Steelers can win a lot of games playing the style of football they did Sunday – as long as they don't turn the ball over themselves.
Despite the pressure he received from a good New Orleans defensive front, Pickett didn't turn the ball over in this game.
"First and foremost, he took care of the football," said Tomlin when asked about Pickett's play. "As a young quarterback in competitive circumstances, that's a difficult thing to do. We don't discount his ability to do that. Take care of the ball, give yourself a chance to win, and make yourself a tough group to beat. So, it started there for us."
• We'll see when Fitzpatrick is able to return. That he was there on the sideline for this game was a good sign.
There's a chance – a slight chance – that he could be available for the Steelers when they host the Bengals next week.
In the meantime, it's nice to have a veteran player who has started a lot of games such as Kazee available to step in and play at a high level.
"He's a veteran guy. He plays with a chip on his shoulder," Heyward said. "Kazee has been one of the louder guys this week. I think him and Myles were about to fight every day – in a playful way. Kazee is small in stature but big with his voice. His play, he plays big, as well. Having a guy like that to put out there when a guy like Mink is down is huge."
• The kicking game is going to have to get better.
Matthew Wright missed a pair of chip-shot field goals. And even on one of his made attempts, a Saints player got a hand on the ball.
If you're going to play tight games, every point is going to count. And that's not going to change for three more weeks until Chris Boswell is eligible to come off the Reserve/Injured list, where he was placed earlier this week because of a groin injury.
The Steelers signed Wright, who had been in training camp with them previously, off Kansas City's practice squad to replace Boswell.
"We've had success with him," Tomlin said of Wright, who had converted 28 of 32 field goal attempts in his career going into this game, mostly with Jacksonville last year.
"He's been successful in the league. We were comfortable with that information, not only in terms of what he's done in the National Football League, but what he's done here with us."
Another week like this one, and that could change.