The first half of Sunday's matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals at Heinz Field was a continuation of the offensive futility that the Steelers have experienced since Mike Vick took over for the injured Ben Roethlisberger three weeks ago in St. Louis. While some granted Vick the benefit of persistent doubts that he could still get the job done, his first-half performance against Arizona seemed to confirm that he cannot. But in the second half, a Steelers' offense led primarily by Landry Jones outscored Carson Palmer and company 22-3 to seal the most uncanny-but-satisfying win of the 2015 regular season.
Defensively, the Steelers continued to frustrate their opponents with a measured combination of outstanding individual and team effort that produced three Arizona turnovers. Despite surrendering 421 yards passing, the Steelers' defense allowed the Cards to gain only 55 net yards rushing, while snatching two interceptions, one forced when linebacker Vince Williams blanketed a receiver and tipped the pass to Lawrence Timmons and a second pick on a leaping grab by Mike Mitchell in the end zone to halt a Cardinals' drive. As he did so memorably in Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison continued to be an Arizona nemesis, sacking Carson Palmer once and forcing a Card's receiver to fumble.
For its part, the Steelers' offense didn't turn the ball over in the game, despite a near-interception thrown by Mike Vick. Ultimately, it was the arm of Landry Jones, the powerful, consistent running of Le'Veon Bell and the incredible athleticism of Martavis Bryant during the second half that sent the Cards home in defeat. Bryant's leaping, 8-yard TD grab in the back of the end zone, plus his electrifying, 88-yard TD catch-and-run, on which he changed directions twice on his way to paydirt, served notice that Pittsburgh has two game-breaking receivers to haunt NFL coaches' dreams.
Even with their most valuable player absent from the playing field, the trio of Jones, Bryant and Bell proved too much for Arizona to handle in the second half. After this 2015 season debut, it seems obvious that Landry Jones possesses the capability to stand in the pocket and get the ball to his receivers with a consistency that Mike Vick simply hasn't been able to achieve. While it might be wishful thinking to expect Jones to continue lighting up the scoreboard while Ben remains on the sidelines, there's considerably more hope now among the faithful of Steelers Nation that Jones can at least stretch the field and prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box to key on Bell. As incredible as it might have seemed during the preseason, Landry Jones appears single-handedly to have revived the threat of a Steelers' passing attack which had largely been dormant under Vick's leadership.
In addition to yielding a very respectable 4-2 record in Big Ben's absence, this outstanding team victory opens up a host of other intriguing possibilities that bode well for the remainder of the season. Perhaps most importantly, it appears that Todd Haley now will be able to implement essentially the same offensive scheme that Roethlisberger was running earlier in the season. Additionally, there's less urgency at this point for Ben to return to the lineup until he's fully healed.
On defense, and given the Steelers' wealth of talent at linebacker, the team clearly is able to withstand the temporary loss of players such as Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones without missing a beat. In fact, on the Cardinals' sole TD of the game in the first quarter, Sean Spence deflected Palmer's pass, which nearly prevented the score. Spence, Arthur Moats and Vince Williams are all playing at a high level and without exposing any glaring weaknesses. They're also getting plenty of experience under fire. This can only help the Steelers as the season unfolds. Much the same can be said about the Steelers' secondary, where players like Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas and Ross Cockrell are currently getting a crash course in big-time NFL football. While not all of these players are likely to remain in starting roles throughout the season, the hard knocks they're experiencing now will pay dividends as the season unfolds and whenever their services are needed. And one or more of them might prove that they deserve to stay in the starting lineup.
Last, but certainly not least, are Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry who, quite unexpectedly, have vastly elevated Pittsburgh's kicking game, apparently resolving what had been viewed by many as a season-long liability.
These developments speak strongly about the capabilities of the Steelers' organization and its decisions in transitioning a former championship team into an entirely new and younger team, but with comparable competitive ability. Sunday's emergence of Landry Jones as an apparently capable backup quarterback, along with Martavis Bryant's return to beastly form, have provided much-needed breathing room for the Steelers to get their wounded warriors back onto the field and consolidate the impressive personnel changes they've made during the past few years. In the wake of this impressive and unexpected victory, it's exciting for Steelers Nation to ponder what this team is going to look like when its fearless leader returns to the field.