Running back Najee Harris had just finished off an eight-yard run late in Sunday’s Week 6 matchup between the Steelers and Buccaneers at Acrisure Stadium.
It was second and two from the Pittsburgh 33-yard line. Tampa Bay, who had trailed the entire day, had just pulled to within two points moments earlier thanks to a touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Leonard Fournette, followed by a failed two-point conversion attempt.
With the game clock ticking down to under four minutes, and with the Buccaneers still in possession of all three of their timeouts, it was paramount that Pittsburgh posted multiple first downs in order to salt things away.
What did offensive coordinator Matt Canada dial up at that moment? Was it one of those RPO plays? Was it going to be a Trubisky draw out of the shotgun? Maybe the offense would be bold and throw to win.
Unfortunately, we never got to find out what the play call was because it was aborted thanks to an errant snap from center Mason Cole that sent the football bouncing past quarterback Mitch Trubisky and into no man’s land with more than one Tampa defender in hot pursuit and eager to pick it up and walk into the end zone as a conquering hero.
Thankfully, Trubisky had the wherewithal and determination to chase down the errant snap and dive on it before any Bucs’ defender could.
Sadly, it was now third and 16 from the Pittsburgh 20. The Buccaneers still had all three of their timeouts plus the two-minute warning. With the Steelers clinging to a 20-18 lead, things were shaping up quite nicely for Brady to get the ball back, complete a few f-bomb-soaked passes and, at the very least, lead his team to a game-winning field goal as time expired.
I realize we aren’t living in the 1960s, but “Same Old Steelers,” I thought, as Cole walked back to the huddle looking very much like a puppy that did his business where he knew he wasn’t allowed to do his business.
“This is what bad football teams do,” I said to nobody in particular. The Steelers came into the day riding a four-game losing streak and had been treating points, first downs and offensive fluidity as if they were just theories.
I don’t know about you, but I just had a bad feeling. There was no Ben Roethlisberger to pull the Steelers out of the fire. Antonio Brown was off offending someone, somewhere. Hines Ward hadn’t made a clutch play for the Steelers since maybe 2010.
The Steelers were doomed.
Remarkably, however, Trubisky dropped back into a clean pocket, briefly surveyed the field and unleashed a precision pass in the direction of receiver Chase Claypool, who was actually wide open. Claypool pulled in that precision pass and picked up the crucial first down.
Fast forward a few plays.
It was now third and 11 after one of those RPO calls—a Trubisky keeper—netted minus four yards. The Buccaneers used their second timeout, and (believe it or not) there was still 2:20 left in the game.
I don’t know about you, but the first down picked up by Claypool moments earlier seemed like a brief reprieve and something that simply delayed the inevitable: One final gut punch by Brady and his Bunch before leaving Pittsburgh for the last time.
But something strange happened on the way to Doomsville: Trubisky took the accurate shotgun snap from Cole, scrambled to his left, bought himself an extra second or two, and then found Claypool near the sideline where the third-year receiver made a spectacular falling-down grab and got his elbow in bounds before rolling onto the sideline to net another crucial first down.
It was amazing.
But even with 2:07 remaining, and even after Trubisky galloped nine yards on a keeper to get things to the two-minute warning, I still wasn’t convinced.
But I didn’t have to sweat out any third-down scenarios thanks to Trubisky effectively ending the game with, of all things, a successful quarterback keeper (I guess Coach Matt has one of those in his playbook).
It was a surreal feeling, watching the Steelers exorcise their past Brady demons and doing so with players who may never even sniff a Super Bowl.
Brady demons aside, it was rather refreshing to see this floundering team, one which had rescued three of its four losses from the jaws of victory, come through with some important and critical plays at the end.
Maybe it’s something the 2022 Steelers can build on moving forward.