The Pittsburgh Steelers young defense wasn't supposed to win games this season; they were just supposed to play well enough not to lose them. That wasn't the case on Sunday, as the Steelers defeated the St. Louis Rams 12-6 and improved to 2-1 on the season.
This game had a weird feel to it from the very beginning. As the Rams' offense ran onto the field during the pregame introductions, a pyrotechnic cart malfunctioned, catching the turf on fire near the Edward Jones Dome's south end zone. After a nearly 30-minute delay, the teams finally took the field.
Then, Steelers Nation held its collective breath as the worst injury imaginable occurred.
With the Steelers leading 9-3 midway through the third quarter, franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was knocked out of the game by a low hit from safety Mark Barron.
Roethlisberger's injury changed the entire complexion of the afternoon.
With backup quarterback Michael Vick under center, the Steelers offense struggled to move the ball against the Rams' tenacious front seven. St. Louis stacked the box, leaving Le'Veon Bell little room to run.
It appeared as though Pittsburgh would be unable to score for the rest of the game, and the Rams would eventually find a way to put the ball in the end zone.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Rams offense had a first-and-goal at the Steelers' seven yard line. On first down, linebacker Sean Spence, filling in for injured Ryan Shazier, shot through the line and dropped running back Tre Mason for a two-yard loss. After two illegal procedure penalties and an incomplete pass, the Rams were forced to kick a field goal.
With the score 9-6, the Steelers were unable to run out the clock on their ensuing possession, and punted the ball to the Rams with 3:19 remaining. On the first play of the drive, quarterback Nick Foles threw an ill-advised pass to the deep middle of the field that was intercepted by strong safety Will Allen.
Allen returned the interception to the Rams' 31-yard line, setting up kicker Josh Scobee's 41-yard field goal, which put the Steelers ahead 12-6.
St. Louis would need a 79-yard touchdown drive to win the game, and cornerback Antwon Blake made sure that didn't happen. On a fourth-and-five pass to wide receiver Kenny Britt, Blake delivered a big hit, up ending Britt, who was unable to maintain possession of the ball when he hit the turf.
"It was a reaction play," Blake explained to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Those short hitches, those are going to be catches most of the time. You can only come back and make the tackle. I just wanted to make sure I made a good tackle. Fortunately, I was able to get the ball out."
The Steelers secondary limited Foles to 197 yards on 19 completions and picked him off with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter. Blake and cornerback William Gay had solid performances on the outside, while Allen and free safety Mike Mitchell played exceptionally well in the middle of the field. Mitchell delivered several jarring hits, and Allen finished with a team-high seven tackles, a pass breakup and an interception.
Pittsburgh's front seven held Mason, Benjamin Cunningham and Todd Gurley to 35 yards on 16 carries (2.1 YPC) and registered two sacks. Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt were stout against the run. Tuitt registered six tackles, a sack and two tackles for a loss.
The Steelers' defense ranks sixth in points per game against (17.3 PPG) and they kept St. Louis out of the end zone on Sunday.
"That's what a good defense does. They show up when needed, and they show up rather consistently. We're a work in progress from that standpoint," head coach Mike Tomlin told Mike DeCourcy of SportingNews.com.
That now makes two quality performances from a young and improving unit in as many weeks. The Steelers' offense will need the defense to come up big again on Thursday night, in what should prove to be another low scoring, defensive slugfest against the Baltimore Ravens (0-3).