In many ways, the Steelers 23-17 victory over the Cardinals in Arizona on Sunday was like so many others this season.
After completing 16 of 19 passes for 152 yards and a two-yard touchdown pass in-which he displayed great accuracy and arm strength while finding rookie receiver Diontae Johnson in the front left corner of the end zone, Devlin Hodges, the undrafted free agent rookie quarterback from Samford, may not have you wishing for the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger anytime soon, but you sure had to be impressed with his poise and, more importantly, his continued improvement in just his third start.
As for Johnson, who caught six passes for 60 yards, along with another 16 yards on a run, that touchdown cemented Sunday as his finest as a professional. You see, he began to write the first chapter in that story in the first quarter with an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead.
After the Steelers quickly stymied Arizona’s offense on its next possession, Sunday’s game had all the makings of a blowout win in front of some rowdy black and gold faithful who had State Farm Stadium looking and sounding like Heinz Field.
But these Steelers, who came into Sunday with tiebreaker possession of the sixth seed in the AFC, they sometimes have a hard time accepting prosperity. Maybe it’s because so many are so young and inexperienced.
Those words can certainly be used to describe rookie running back Benny Snell Jr., who quickly gave the Cardinals some life with a fumble that they recovered at the Pittsburgh 34.
They say dominant defense travels well, which was a good thing for the Steelers (even if it did feel like a home game). Pittsburgh held strong and limited the Cardinals to three points.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals’ following possession was of the uptempo variety, and Pittsburgh’s defense seemed to wilt on a 12-play, 85-yard touchdown drive.
Fast-forward to the Cardinals first drive of the second half, one that appeared to be snuffed out by safety Terrell Edmunds, who tackled rookie quarterback Kyler Murray for a seven-yard loss on third and two.
But just when it looked like Pittsburgh would have a chance to build on the 13-10 lead it took into halftime thanks to Chris Boswell’s field goal at the gun, the Cardinals ran a successful fake punt to maintain possession.
Fortunately, just when it looked like Pittsburgh’s slim lead was in jeopardy, godsend veteran cornerback Joe Haden undercut a Murray pass and intercepted it at the Pittsburgh 26.
Fast-forward again, this time to the final period, with the Steelers ahead, 20-10. Pittsburgh’s defense seemed to deny the Cardinals their last, best chance to get back into the football game, thanks to an end zone interception by linebacker T.J. Watt on fourth and two.
Pittsburgh’s offense picked up a first down on the ensuing drive and managed to milk a few minutes off the game clock before having to punt the football away at its own 40 with a little over eight minutes remaining. Unfortunately, Jordan Berry attempted a fake punt on fourth and six that either was or wasn’t called off by head coach Mike Tomlin. The fake was not only unsuccessful, the Cardinals secured the football at the 32.
Of all the “stunned disbelief” moments I can think of in the recent past, the decision to even consider a fake punt in that situation has to rank at the top of the list.
Unlike after Snell’s gaffe, the defense couldn’t bail out Berry and/or Tomlin for such an egregious self-inflicted wound, and the Cardinals made it 20-17 on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Murray to running back David Johnson.
There was still 6:44 remaining in the game, and what once looked like a blowout win in-front of an away stadium full of “home” fans, now had the makings of another one of those ugly road losses vs. an inferior opponent that have become as much a part of Tomlin’s legacy as all of the positive things he’s accomplished.
And that fake punt, how would the head coach ever live that down if it paved the way for a crippling loss?
But these 2019 Steelers, while unable to fully accept prosperity, are unwavering in their resiliency.
To quote their head coach, they just don’t blink.
The offense didn’t blink during an 11-play, 77-yard field goal drive that took 5:02 off the clock and left the Cardinals with zero timeouts and less than two minutes to march the ball downfield to score the game-winning touchdown.
The Cardinals offense didn’t stand a chance, not against this defense that put the finishing touchdowns on an eighth victory, thanks to Haden’s second interception of the day.
These 2019 Steelers are now 8-5. These 2019 Steelers are now 8-3 without Roethlisberger. These 2019 Steelers are now 7-1 since October 13.
They not only maintain tiebreaker possession of the sixth seed, they’re now one game closer to Buffalo for the fifth seed.
The Bills are coming to town for a huge showdown next Sunday evening.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in that game, but this young and inexperienced team, the one that can’t fully accept prosperity, even if it is forever unwavering in its ability to not blink, will give you another resilient and memorable performance.
Score another one for Team.