What’s more important? The Steelers defeating the Patriots for the first time in six years or the Steelers defeating the Patriots for the first time in seven years? Since time machines don’t exist, I’ll have to go with the latter.
The latter came on Sunday, as Pittsburgh held on to defeat the Patriots, 17-10, at Heinz Field before a loud and encouraging crowd that was probably feeling a bit of deja vu the entire game—and especially at the very end. Why? Because, much like the match-up at Heinz on December 17, 2017, the Steelers controlled the action for the majority of the evening. Yet, they could never really pull away from New England and never led by more than one score.
You can point to the two interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger, along with yet another missed field goal by Chris Boswell if you want. However, that would take the shine off of a stellar effort by a defense whose performance was considered merely passable when Pittsburgh was building its 7-2-1 record and downright disastrous during the three-game losing-streak the team carried into Heinz Field on Sunday that left it at 7-5-1 and in serious trouble as far as making the playoffs was concerned.
And “disastrous” certainly described the defense’s fourth quarter meltdowns in losses to the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders.
But while the second half performance by the offense and the missed kick by Boswell on Sunday were familiar recent refrains, the defense changed the tune and shed its “disastrous” shell by only allowing a field goal in the second half.
Just how big was the performance of the defense on Sunday, especially in the fourth quarter? How about stopping the Patriots in the red zone on their last two drives of the game? How about an athletic interception inside the five-yard line by Joe Haden, who actually high pointed a poorly thrown Brady pass and fought off Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman while maintaining possession all the way to the ground? That’s right, Haden survived the ground. As for the Steelers, they survived the evening, thanks to a second red zone stand that saw Brady throw consecutive incomplete passes into the end zone with precious seconds remaining in the game.
There would be no fourth quarter Gronk unleashing like a year earlier. There wouldn’t even be any direct redemption for Jesse James, and that’s because the Steelers never trailed for one second of Sunday’s action.
There should be some redemption for defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who may not have as many people wanting his head on a pike this week.
But you can’t just tip your hat to the defense. How about the performance by rookie running back Jaylen Samuels, who netted 142 rushing yards on 19 carries while starting for the injured James Conner?
How about the coaching performance by head coach Mike Tomlin, who simply needed to win Sunday’s game in-order to prevent the Steelers playoff chances from officially being placed on life-support? If we’re going to blame Tomlin for not having his team ready to play a week earlier in Oakland, we have to praise him for having his guys prepared for the huge task against the Patriots.
Speaking of accomplishing this huge task, that is why this year’s victory was far-more important than last year’s miscarriage of justice involving Jesse James and Co. The Steelers were still in great shape after their heartbreaking loss to New England. Sure, the loss knocked Pittsburgh out of the number one seed and ultimately led to the really bad playoff match-up vs. the Jaguars that brought the 2017 season to an abrupt halt
But there’s a difference between playing for postseason positioning and playing for your postseason lives.
Some might say the Steelers were never the same after their loss to New England a year ago. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the same will be said of the aftermath of a rare victory over the Patriots this year.
Only time will tell, but the Steelers passed an enormous test on Sunday, one that had little to do with their playoff seed and everything to do with their playoff heartbeat.