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Pittsburgh Steelers might be the NFL’s zombie squad

In a league populated mostly by middling teams, it’s risky to conduct premature burials.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

During most of the game at Heinz Field on Sunday evening, the Pittsburgh Steelers were almost too ugly to behold. For many in Steelers Nation, their favorite team resembled a hideous, barely animated caricature of its former self — similar to the aimless, plodding undead in the low-budget, 1981 movie “Night of the Zombies.” The Steelers offense was unable to move the ball or convert on third downs, while the defense had resumed its troubling habit of yielding big chunks of yardage and failing to hold the line in 3rd-and-long situations. For the better part of three quarters — except for what should have been a TD drive at the end of the first half — Pittsburgh’s offense mostly looked like dead men running while putting only three points on the scoreboard.

But in the final quarter, perhaps in response to the deafening roar of the world’s greatest football fans, the dormant corpse of Pittsburgh’s former glory sprung from its crypt to terrorize the Baltimore Ravens, scoring 17 points to send their divisional rivals home wondering exactly what had hit them. Despite some conspicuously missing bodies and the team's halting, Frankenstein movements on the gridiron, the Steelers once again had demonstrated their capacity to surprise an unsuspecting victim. Two weeks after nearly pulling off a similar feat against the Chargers in Los Angeles, it seemed reasonable to question whether this 2021 Steelers team might be enacting pro football’s rendition of the zombie siege — those creepy dudes who lull you into believing they’re dead and buried, but suddenly . . . .

If nothing else, we might have learned a few things about the Pittsburgh Steelers that seemed doubtful after last week's collapse in Cincinnati. First of all, in today's NFL of parity and widely inconsistent play, the Steelers might not really be too terribly far away from competing after all.

While the Ravens haven't exactly been overwhelming this season, the Steelers somehow managed to beat them at their own specialty — finding ways to win close games. In fact, seven of Baltimore's eight wins this season have been by margins of six points or less.

Secondly, with their backs against the wall, a handful of Pittsburgh's depth players stepped up to deliver performances exceeding any expectations. In the final quarter, when the Steelers most desperately needed to move the ball, John Leglue — a player previously unknown to many fans — was spotted blasting out running lanes for Najee Harris and Benny Snell.

On defense, Chris Wormley, the former Ravens castoff, was making some key plays while Ahkello Witherspoon appeared to make a strong case for additional snaps by delivering a number of big hits plus a crucial, game-saving pass deflection.

This is precisely the kind of backup talent that every contending NFL team must have — players who not only can step in when starting players are lost to injury or illness, but who also show they might be starting-caliber themselves.

Finally, it was established quite firmly that, given a modicum of pass protection and at least a respectable running game, zombie chief Ben Roethlisberger — widely rumored to have died this season — still can be quite scary and dangerous to Steelers opponents.

But as Pittsburgh prepares to face the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday Night Football, some key questions persist which will determine if these zombie-Steelers continue to wreak havoc on the NFL or whether they'll sink quietly back into their graves.

Something which must be solved is the ongoing mystery of why it so often takes the Steelers offense more than half the game to get untracked. Defensively, the Steelers must find a solution for their continuing inability to stop 3rd-and-long conversions, and that solution cannot rely solely on T.J. Watt's uncanny ability to pressure the quarterback.

On Sunday at Heinz Field, we witnessed a haggard band of Steelers clawing their way out of the cemetary turf and back into a crowded NFL playoff race. We also saw clear evidence of why Pittsburgh's loyal, zealous fans continue to be the envy of the pro football world.

That’s the kind of foundation any football organization can build upon. If the Steelers catch a few breaks personnel-wise and continue to play the role of every NFL contender's worst nightmare, they might still find a way to finish this season on the upswing. After all, there's nothing quite so blood-curdling as an animated corpse.