How awful were the Pittsburgh Steelers over the first 30-plus minutes of Sunday’s showdown against a very good Colts team at Heinz Field?
So awful, it felt like you were watching the same Pittsburgh franchise that came into the day on a three-game slide.
And that’s because you essentially were. No imagination on offense. Just 98 first-half yards and a very short touchdown drive that was made possible when T.J. Watt stripped Colts’ quarterback Philip Rivers of the football and Mike Hilton returned it to the three.
Speaking of which, other than that one splash play, the defense looked gassed and injury-depleted, a unit that seriously needed its offense to stay on the field longer. Maybe that’s why Indianapolis came right back and scored touchdowns on its next two possessions.
The offense couldn’t really stay on the field, as it once again relied heavily on a short-passing game that looked about as potent as it had over the previous few weeks. I swear to you, I could hear the Colts’ defenders screaming “That’s not gonna work!” on at least two occasions as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger barked out his pre-snap adjustments.
That’s precisely what I heard late in the third quarter when Pittsburgh had a first and goal from the one and was trying to cut into a Colts’ lead that had ballooned to 17 points. The Steelers came up short on four-straight attempts, which shocked nobody in the “Ben needs to retire and/or fire Randy Fichtner” camp.
But that injury-depleted defense forced the Colts to punt after three plays. One play after that, the Steelers actually started to throw it deep. That’s right, they attempted to open things up, and Roethlisberger found Diontae “No Hands” Johnson for a 39-yard touchdown catch to make it 24-14.
That injury-compromised Pittsburgh defense forced another three and out. The offense again opened things up. Sure, it didn’t lead to a long touchdown strike, but it did result in a 24-yard pass-interference call that paved the way for a few short passes and a five-yard touchdown to Eric “Shaky Hands” Ebron.
Just like that, the Colts defense began to take notice. It also began to back off a bit, thus making it easier for Pittsburgh to hit those short passes.
After the injury-depleted defense held again, the Steelers offense just started peppering the Indianapolis defense with jabs that suddenly looked effective again—a short left pass, a short right pass, a short pass to James Conner right up the gut. And just when Roethlisberger had the Colts’ secondary dazed and confused, he connected with JuJu “Logo Dancing Diva” Smith-Schuster for a 25-yard touchdown strike to make it 28-24, good guys.
That injury-depleted defense stopped the Colts on their last two offensive possessions to secure Pittsburgh’s first AFC North crown in three years.
How sweet was that? The Steelers went from hitting rock bottom to hitting their stride in a matter of three hours. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t 60 minutes of excellence, but there was enough there over the final two quarters—on both sides of the football—to make one think the Steelers could actually do some damage in a postseason that will begin for them in just under two weeks.
As for now, they can head into the final regular-season game with a renewed sense of confidence.
The Pittsburgh Steelers may not be dead just yet.