If you're a Steelers fan, player or coach, you're probably feeling a bit uneasy today; an uneasiness that stems from a defense that surrendered 24 points in barely over a quarter of game action and looked helpless for most of the second half against a Cleveland offense led by quarterback Brian Hoyer and missing its top receiver Josh Gordon in a Week 1 match-up at Heinz Field this past Sunday afternoon.
But how do you think you'd be feeling today if Pittsburgh had lost?
The Steelers have played a lot of games in their long and mostly-illustrious history, but it's hard to recall one in which they surrendered a 24-point lead. And the fact that the defense allowed the lead to slip away so quickly--Pittsburgh led 27-3 at halftime and the Browns came all the way back to tie the score with 11:15 still remaining in the fourth quarter--let's face it, that was alarming.
Losing a game like that in the wake of two straight 8-8 seasons and an off-season that showed more promise than concern would have been a devastating blow.
I don't think that's an overreaction. There are Week 1 losses, and then there are Week 1 uppercuts to the chin that knock a team down for the count. After losing their previous three regular-season openers, and after starting 0-4 a year ago, blowing a huge lead and losing to Cleveland on Sunday would have had this particular Steelers team kneeling on the canvas and searching for its mouth piece as the referee began counting to 10.
Oh yes, and Pittsburgh still would've had to get back up and clear the cobwebs out in time for their road game against the Ravens in just a few short days on Thursday Night Football.
An 0-2 start would have seemed almost inevitable.
Fortunately for the Steelers, an unlikely defensive hero rose up to face the challenge once again, and he did so in just the nick of time.
I'm talking about William Gay, sometimes known as Big-Play Willie Gay.
Despite the criticism levied against him by fans over the years, Gay sure seems to come up with big plays at key moments.
Remember that late-game pick in Baltimore that secured the 2008 AFC North title for the Steelers and earned Gay his big-play moniker? Turns out, that was just a prelude to a career of key defensive plays at critical moments.
The 24-17 late-season road victory over the Bengals in 2011 also comes to mind. With Pittsburgh clinging to a 24-17 fourth-quarter lead, Gay deflected a pass that was intercepted by Lawrence Timmons and snuffed out a potential game-tying drive. And late in the game, with Cincinnati closing in on another possible game-tying touchdown, Gay stepped in front of an Andy Dalton pass and salted things away with a crucial interception.
A season ago, with Pittsburgh's defense in desperate need of some splash plays, Gay created two of the most memorable of the entire year in a game against the Browns at FirstEnergy Field on November 24. With the Steelers ahead 13-3 in the third quarter, Gay sacked quarterback Jason Campbell and caused a fumble that was returned deep into Cleveland territory, setting up a touchdown to make it 20-3. And in the fourth quarter, Gay put the game out of reach when he intercepted Cleveland's other quarterback, Brandon Weeden, and returned the pick 21 yards for a score.
This brings us back to Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, with the Browns and Steelers deadlocked at 27. Cleveland had the football with barely over a minute to go and was facing a second and 16 from its own 14 yard line. On paper that doesn't seem like a big deal, but if you watched Sunday's contest, you know how easily the Browns' offense knifed through Pittsburgh's defense for most of the second half. Cleveland gashed the Steelers defense to the tune of 308 yards after intermission, and it sure seemed like the Browns would have little trouble gaining the additional yardage needed to at least get into range for a possible game-winning (and Steeler Nation-deflating) field goal.
But Hoyer's second down pass to receiver Andrew Hawkins was deflected away beautifully by Gay on a play that was textbook for how a corner should do such things. More importantly, it stopped the clock and left Pittsburgh with all of its timeouts. And on 3rd-and-16, Hoyer tried a little swing pass to Hawkins that was read perfectly by Gay, who stopped the receiver for a 5-yard loss and forced the Browns to punt from their own end zone with 59 seconds remaining.
We all know how things unfolded from there, with Ben Roethlisberger, Markus Wheaton and Shaun Suisham acting as heroes during the final 47 seconds.
The defensive wounds that the Browns exposed in the second half sure need some attention before Week 2. But man, they would have been even more painful if they were accompanied by a loss.
Thankfully, Big-Play Willie Gay was there to save the day.