We all know the story of Rudolph the red nosed reindeer and how he went from being maligned for being different to using his deformity to guide Santa's sleigh through the storm and save Christmas for all the little boys and girls. Well, Sunday evening at Heinz Field a few of the Steelers players did their best Rudolph impression and helped save the season and the holidays for the team and Steelers Nation.
Make no mistake about it, a loss Sunday at home against their arch nemesis would have went a long way to putting the final nails in this season of Steelers frustration. Coming off a rare three game losing streak the Steelers were on life support and desperate for a shot of adrenaline. An improbable victory over the New England Patriots was just what the doctor ordered. The Steelers are hardly out of the woods just yet, and there is a lot of work left undone, but they finally got the Brady monkey off their backs and took a huge step in the right direction in the process.
No matter what the remainder of this season may hold for the Steelers, they can look back at the inspirational victory that no one can take away from them with pride, and fondly remember the game as a coming out party for some young contributors.
Jaylen Samuels had the game of his life, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Steelers. Samuels acknowledged he had never had a hundred yard game before running the ball, at any level. Coming out of NC State in this year's draft, he was a man without a position. He was considered a tweener, not big enough to play tight end and maybe not quick enough for full time minutes at running back. All he did in college was line up wherever the team needed him and make plays. He caught everything thrown his way and he scored touchdowns, lots of them. All he wanted was a chance, and the Steelers gave him one. Pretty sure they are happy they did.
Samuels has been very smooth catching the ball this season, as expected, but his success running out of the backfield has been spotty at best. That all changed against the Patriots.
The Patriots have struggled on defense this season, especially against the run. They were absolutely shredded last week by the Miami Dolphins, but nobody expected a repeat of that performance this week against the Steelers with James Conner sidelined with a ankle injury. Samuels must not have received the memo, because he repeated gashed the Patriots for huge gains. He displayed the quickness and burst to turn the corner and cut back in the open field. His strength and balance were impressive and I don't think the Patriots know what hit them. His performance absolutely saved the day for the Steelers and laid to rest the concerns of many about his ability to play running back in the NFL. Player of the game for sure, and he should form a solid backfield tandem with Conner when healthy.
Not only did Samuels heroically save the season for now and answer his share of critics in the process, James Washington also got in the act. We have started to finally get a glimpse of what the young man can bring to the table over the last couple of games. He has dealt with adversity like a man and emerged as a more confident player.
Washington's adjustment period from the Big 12 to the NFL has been a long hill to climb, but he appears set to reach the summit. Washington is blessed with strong hands and abnormally long arms and legs for his frame, which he puts to good use on contested catches. Yesterday's leaping catch up and over a quality professional DB down the sideline was like a replay of his college days and hopefully a preview of things to come.
Washington's emergence has been well timed, as was Eli Rogers return to the field yesterday. Rogers is just a solid, reliable professional, and he immediately displayed that once he touched the field. Considering this was his first action since tearing his ACL in last season's playoff loss, his performance was nothing short of a Christmas miracle. Ben seemed to have a instant comfort level with Rogers, confident that he would be where he was supposed to be, and Eli didn't disappoint. Solid performance when one was desperately needed.
The defense turned in an inspired effort against the Patriots, and two individuals continue to stand out. T.J. Watt and Joe Haden definitely came to play.
My son said if I was going to write about the players who saved Christmas I had to mention Watt, and he was correct. Watt has always had a great motor, evidently it runs in the family, but he has taken his game to the next level this season. Last year he would have grown frustrated by continually applying pressure but not getting the sack and would have lost focus and run himself out of the play. This season he maintains his responsibilities while remaining focused through out each play. He has abandoned last year's kamikaze style for this year's controlled chaos style, more ninja like. His sack of Brady almost brought a tear to my eye.
Unlike our own Big Ben, make Brady move his feet and his play drops off big time. Watt played a huge role in that through out the game.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Joe Haden. Haden played a beautiful game, another in a strong season, but his interception was a thing of beauty. His ball skills on the pick were enough to make AB and Juju proud. To high point that ball, absorb the impact, and still get his feet down to complete the pick is the first image still ingrained in my mind after the game, and dare I say it may become the Immaculate Interception. History will be the judge of that.
Sunday was another great, albeit unexpected, holiday memory given to Steelers Nation by our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.