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Steelers win over Buccaneers made possible by a cast of unlikely heroes

Just when you thought the Steelers were going to drop to 1-5, they came through with an upset victory over the Buccaneers.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

They say the NFL is a crazy football league.

“Any Given Sunday” has taken on a life of its own many years after the movie, and that’s because the line between the fringe and elite players is often thin enough that upsets can happen anytime and anywhere in the National Football League.

But, come on, we were supposed to believe all of that malarkey when the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the heavily-favored Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon?

We were supposed to suspend our disbelief and think that Pittsburgh’s secondary, a unit that was missing four of its top five players, would be able to hold its own against Tom Brady, a quarterback who came into Sunday’s game with a lifetime record of 12-3 against the Steelers and had thrown 34 touchdowns to only five interceptions against them during his storied career?

We were supposed to assume that the Steelers front seven, one that had barely sniffed the opposing quarterback in the previous four games without T.J. Watt, would be able to generate enough pressure to make life uncomfortable for Brady most of the afternoon?

However, the Steelers’ very depleted defense held its own all afternoon. I can’t explain it, but it actually happened.

Alex Highsmith recorded one of Pittsburgh’s sacks during this improbable 20-18 win. Cam Heyward was credited with the other.

You might have expected that from those two, but what about the game Larry Ogunjobi had? He had five tackles and two quarterback hits, and he finally turned in the kind of performance the Steelers were hoping for when they signed him in the offseason to take the place of a retired Stephon Tuitt.

What about Robert Spillane, who, as head coach Mike Tomlin put it after the game, played many roles on Sunday—including inside linebacker, dime linebacker and safety? Spillane also came through with an important pass breakup to thwart a Buccaneers’ drive in a game that was close from start to finish.

And what can you say about The Replacements? I’m talking about a makeshift secondary led by Arthur “Team Conscience” Maulet. Maulet had a day. Josh Jackson had a day. James Pierre looked like the James Pierre many thought he could be when he won the starting cornerback spot out of training camp in 2021. Tre Norwood played a good game. Heck, someone named Elijah Riley made a play or two.

Pittsburgh’s substitute secondary, one that was missing Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Sutton, Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon, performed so admirably on Sunday that I’m wondering if Tomlin should go with the “hot hand” even if those guys are all healthy for the next game.

Maybe The Replacements acquitted themselves so well because of Terrell Edmunds, the lone starter in the secondary who had maybe the best game of his career, posting 10 tackles and acting like the leader his depleted unit needed him to be.

Even Malik “Legend Replacer” Reed finally did something in Watt’s absence and made an important play on Sunday.

Last but not least, what about Devin Bush breaking up a pass on a two-point conversion after the Bucs scored a touchdown to pull to within two with 4:38 left in the game?

And those were just the unlikely heroes on defense.

There was even an unlikely special teams hero: Steven “Randle El” Sims, who returned the second-half kickoff 89 yards to set up a Chris Boswell field goal and also had a 24-yard punt return later in the game.

How about those unsung heroes on offense?

What about Chase Claypool pulling in seven passes for 96 yards and a touchdown—the team’s first by a receiver in 2022? Claypool saved his best for last, however, when he reeled in two key third-down passes on the game’s final drive—including an impressive reception near the sideline where he just barely got one elbow on the grass of Acrisure Stadium while maintaining possession and rolling out of bounds—that helped to salt away the remaining time.

Perhaps the unlikeliest hero of all was quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who entered the game in place of a concussed Kenny Pickett in the second half and completed 9 of 12 passes for 144 yards and what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on the strike to Claypool. Furthermore, Trubisky showed athleticism, determination and poise by not only scrambling to fall on an errant center snap from Mason Cole but immediately following that up by connecting with Claypool on a third and 16 pass to keep that final drive alive.

Despite its frequent use, the “Any Given Sunday” mantra is often unrealistic, and so is “Next Man Up.”

But these Steelers, and their huge cast of unlikely heroes, gave those tired quotes new life on Sunday by leading the way in an improbable win.