As the 4-4 Steelers prepared to face the Rams in a potentially pivotal Week 10 match-up at Heinz Field on Sunday, the general consensus was that Pittsburgh, whose offense would be missing running backs James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. as well as guard Ramon Foster, would have to rely on its defense to win.
Weird saying that, isn’t it?
Maybe it used to be, but the concerns about the Steelers’ defense are vanishing in the rear-view mirror quicker these days than the troubling 1-4 start to the year that was aided greatly by the season-ending injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2.
After a satisfying 17-12 win over the Rams in a defensive battle, Pittsburgh is now 5-4 and very-much alive in the wildcard race, just one game back of the Bills, who currently hold the fifth seed in the AFC. They are also in a three-way fight with the Colts and Raiders, both 5-4, for the final wildcard spot.
But we can talk about that later. Right now, in the aftermath of a hard-fought victory over the defending NFC champions, we have to acknowledge that the Steelers defense may have come of age on Sunday.
Facing a rather stout Rams defense—at least on reputation, if not on overall performance in 2019—one led by all-everything defense lineman Aaron Donald, the belief heading into Sunday was that the offense wouldn’t be able to do a whole heck of a lot.
And it really didn’t. Sure, it could have, but thanks to several drops by the receivers, an errant snap by Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey early in the game that led directly to a Rams touchdown and a 7-0 deficit, a fumble on a sizable gain by receiver James Washington near the end of the second quarter and a whiff on Donald by Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro that led to a safety, the Steelers offense looked about as compromised as it has all season long.
Truth be told, quarterback Mason Rudolph probably deserved a much better fate on Sunday, as his 22 of 38 for 242 yards and a touchdown stat-line could have read a little better had his receivers helped him out a bit more.
But as I’ve written before, it’s a whole new world for these Steelers in 2019.
Just four plays after Washington’s critical fumble after a 34-yard gain on a catch-and-run late in the first half gave the Rams the football at their own 38, defensive end Javon Hargrave hit quarterback Jared Goff just as he was about to pass. The play was immediately ruled a fumble, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a player quickly earning the nickname of “Who Else?” by most play-by-play announcers who cover Steelers games, scooped up the football and raced 43 yards to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead at the half.
As it turned out, this was the game-winning score.
Why? The defense made certain of it.
Sure, there was that pesky field goal Los Angeles converted in the second half, but that was it. The Rams scored their other two points on defense.
The Steelers defense, one that was shaky at best with fourth-quarter leads as recently as five weeks ago, made sure people wouldn’t be talking about how putrid the offense looked on Sunday, and how it cost the team a win by giving away points.
Fitzpatrick closed things out with an interception that was deflected into his hands by cornerback Joe Haden, who, with four other passes defensed and an athletic pick early in the third quarter, may have had his best game as a Steeler.
All-in-all, the Steelers’ defense had four more takeaways on Sunday—even Trey Edmunds (not his brother, Terrell, mind you) got in on the act with an interception on a Rams fake punt in the third quarter—and harassed Goff the entire game to the tune of four more sacks.
It was a familiar refrain for the Steelers: don’t screw up on offense (at least not too much) and let the defense do most of the heavy lifting.
The Steelers aren’t just relevant, right now, they’re very-much in the thick of the race for the postseason.
They say defense wins championships. I’m not so sure that’s true. But as it pertains to the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers, defense has certainly saved their season.