There were charges that the Steelers, as usual, were rusty following their bye. There were accusations that the head coach, Mike Tomlin, didn’t have his guys ready to play against a lesser opponent.
It was pretty standard, really. But what’s not standard in 2019 is who these Steelers really are. When you’re missing your franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and, yes, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the word “always” really can’t be used to describe anything that’s taking place before your very eyes.
As for lesser opponents? Sad to say, but there aren’t many of those as it pertains to the Steelers in 2019. This isn’t to suggest they’re an awful football team, but they’re certainly severely compromised, at least on the offensive side of the football.
When one is missing so many key cogs, one must assume nothing.
And that’s why it wasn’t much of a surprise when Mason Rudolph, who was making his fourth-career start three weeks after suffering a scary concussion at the hands (well, helmet) of Ravens’ safety Earl Thomas, made a curious first pass-attempt that was easily intercepted at the Pittsburgh 26-yard line.
Maybe you were hoping the defense would limit the 0-6 Dolphins to a field goal attempt, and you would have had every right to expect that if this was 2008, and guys named Troy and Casey were leading the way. But those guys weren’t around on Monday night. This isn’t to say this current Steelers’ defense can’t be that good one day. Based on talent, it really can be. In fact, it appears to be trending that way in many categories. However, it’s not there yet. It’s just not likely to stand its ground when the other team—even one that is actively trying to tank its season—is only 26 yards away from pay-dirt.
Besides, Ryan Fitzpatrick, currently keeping the “Fitzmagic” nickname warm for the safety the Steelers just acquired from Miami, is no slouch in the quarterback department. As the saying goes, he’s on scholarship, too, and quickly turned Rudolph’s gift into a 7-0 lead.
Moments later, Fitzpatrick led the Dolphins on a more traditional touchdown drive to make it 14-0, tankers.
Yikes, and that was especially the sentiment after Rudolph spent the entire first quarter and most of the second looking like a guy who should have been replaced by Devlin Hodges and his moxie.
But, again, this is a whole new world. The Steelers can’t rely on their quarterback to carry them on their back and win them games, at least not yet.
And that’s why it was so imperative that Minkah Fitzpatrick did that thing he’s fond of doing where he finds a way to clasp his hands on the football whenever it’s near him. This occurred for the first time at midfield and near the end of the first half, with the Steelers trailing, 14-3.
Moments later, and after having endured the miscarriage of justice that was a phantom offensive pass interference call on rookie receiver Diontae Johnson on a pass that should have given the Steelers a first and goal, Rudolph faced a third and 20 from the Dolphins 45.
With just seconds left in the second quarter, getting into reasonable field goal range was all that could be expected, right? Not when you’re facing a winless team that, for some reason, decided that an all-out blitz and aggressive man-to-man coverage was the way to go. And that’s why it wasn’t all so surprising that Johnson easily found himself wide open. To his credit, Rudolph made the wise decision of hitting him in stride, and the rookie receiver made the wise decision of heading straight for the goal line.
Just like that, it was 14-10.
And, just like that, the game belonged to the Steelers, who spent the second half choking the life out of a team that was in the business of losing.
Rudolph looked much more decisive in the second half, as he led the Steelers to two touchdowns—including a 26-yard hook-up with JuJu Smith-Schuster, who did most of the heavy lifting with one of his patented combat catches, to give Pittsburgh its first lead of the evening.
That score was surprisingly set up by Minkah Fitzpatrick's second pick, which came at the Steelers own three-yard line. It's weird to say that an interception led to a 97-yard touchdown-drive, but that's how it felt.
The defense, one that is slowly starting to get the importance of closing out games, continued to shut things down in the second half by denying Fitzpatrick on a fourth and one quarterback keeper late in the third quarterback and forcing two fumbles in the final period .
Running back James Conner, who rushed for 145 yards on the evening, helped Pittsburgh capitalize on the aforementioned defensive stand against Fitzpatrick by scoring from nine yards out to make it 24-14.
Those two fourth-quarter takeaways only led to three more points on a Chris Boswell field goal, but that’s okay.
The point was, the Steelers didn’t have to rely on their young quarterback.
The Steelers won on Monday night thanks to dominant defense, efficient offense (eventually), good coaching and, believe it or not, a successful challenge by Tomlin, after Fitzpatrick’s keeper was initially deemed effective enough to give the Dolphins a first down near midfield.
It wasn’t pretty, but it’s likely not going to be pretty the rest of the way.
This is what happens when a team is forced to reinvent itself mid-stride.
The Steelers are now 3-4 and still have a pulse.
That’s all you can ask for...even against the lowly and winless Dolphins.