The 13th year of the 21st century has been unlucky for the Pittsburgh Steelers indeed. They lost three players for the year during the first game of the season alone.
But the roots of the 0-4 start suffered by the Steelers went far beyond simply bad luck. With each successive loss, in both what they did and what they failed to do, the Steelers actively lost games.
Against the New York Jets the Steelers, for one game at least, began to break that cycle.
Here We Go Again…
After the Steelers 19-6 victory over the Jets, Ben Roethlisberger mentioned that the NFL season divides into quarters, and that the Steelers after going 0-4 in the first quarter had started the second 1-0.
The metaphor of quarters is useful because the first quarter of the Steelers game against the Jets presented Steelers Nation with a rehash of the first quarter of the season.
- The Steelers lost Levi Brown before the game even started
- David Johnson would likewise be lost to injury
- The Steelers offense couldn’t move
- The addition of Kelvin Beachum to the offensive line did nothing to improve pass protection
- Pittsburgh began each possession deep inside its own territory
Every NFL team encounters such adversity; the Steelers are hardly unique. As Mike Tomlin said after the Trashing vs. Tennessee, the Steelers opponents would in fact be glad the for the Black and Gold’s problems.
How would the Steelers react? Would they delve deeper into the rut that got them to 0-4 or would they, or perhaps the better question was, “could they” find a way to break out.
Moving the Chains, Clapping Down in the Red Zone, But….
The Steelers rally was neither spectacular nor transformational but rather workman like.
The Jets seems to smell blood in the water after forcing the Steelers to go three and out on Pittsburgh’s first two opening possessions the second of which resulted in them getting the ball 45.
As other teams have done, New York nickeled and dimed its way down the field, all the way to the Steelers 2. Yet on third and goal at the two, Cameron Heyward and Brett Keisel accomplished something that had been in short supply in 2013 – they kept an opposing team out of the end zone.
- On the ensuring drive the Steelers shucked off sacks and holding penalties as Roethlisberger hooked up with Heath Miller and Antonio Brown for big gains in a drive that tied the game at 3.
On the next series the Steelers defense added novel element to their game – ending a drive via sack, as Jason Worilds brought down Geno Smith on third down. Another workman like drive and the Steelers were up by 3.
- The cycle repeated itself.
The Steelers defense forced a three and out, this time with a LaMarr Woodley sack while the Steelers offense stitched together another field goal drive.
A 9 to 3 lead at the half isn’t much in today’s NFL, but it looks pretty good when you’re sitting on an 0-4 record. But the problem with that is that 0-4 teams get that way because of their inability to even hold on to such meager advantages.
And so it was that Geno Smith moved his team from the Steelers 28 and into field goal position, in spite of a hellacious (and legal) hit by Troy Polamalu.
- The Jets closed the half down 9 to 6 and they were set to get the ball back.
How would the Pittsburgh Steelers respond? Would they learn yet another lesson in losing or would they break the mold?
“T” Marks the Spot for the Steelers in the Second Half
The Jets got the ball to start the second half in a possession which former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach declared would be the key to the game. The Steelers forced a three and out.
Impressive as it was, this was not the key play for the Steelers in the second half, as the team, for all its troubles, had shown an ability to get into the end zone in the losses to the Bears and Vikings.
No, the key play would come on the next drive by the Jets who looked to answer the Steelers score by marching right down the field. The drive saw the Steelers give up a 29 yard gain and several other medium to short gains.
At 1st and 10 on the Steelers 23 the Jets looked poised to score again, and then the unspeakable occurred:
- Ryan Clark secured the first turnover for the Steelers of the 2013 season.
In a blink of an eye, with Heyward pressuring Smith and Clark’s interception, the Steelers went from looking at least a 16 to 9 lead if not a more meager 16 to 13 lead to holding it to 16-6.
And that’s the story of the game. The Steelers didn’t dazzle for the rest of the half. The offense only scored 3 more points. But they protected their quarterback, protected the ball, and moved the chains efficiently enough to suck the oxygen out of the game.
Late in the 4th quarter the cycle repeated itself. The Jets, with just enough time to give the Steelers a run for their money, marched down to the Steelers 12. This time it was Jarvis Jones turn to apply the pressure while fellow linebacker Lawrence Timmons came up with the game sealing interception at the three.
What This Game Means, What It Doesn’t
It’s important that Steelers Nation and, more precisely, the Steelers locker room understand the true meaning of this victory.
The Pittsburgh Steelers triumphed over a Jet’s team that has and 7-9/8-8 third in its divisionish look to it.
The Steelers failed to run the ball effectively, at least until the final clock killing drive. An NFL offense that musters 3 field goals and 1 touchdown will not beat many contenders. The interceptions salvaged drives where the Jets moved the ball with startling ease.
Yet, if those negatives are real, so Pittsburgh’s play revealed positives that have the potential to be just as real:
- For the final three quarters the Steelers offensive line protected Roethlisberger pretty well
- The Steelers defense applied decent (although far from dominating) pressure on the quarterback for the first time all season
- The Steelers didn’t turn over the ball, and secured 2 turnovers in its own right
This game was very, very far from being a “statement game.” Yet the Steelers did shake the “no turnovers, no victories” monkey off their backs.
Most importantly, they broke the cycle of learning to lose. Next week at Heinz Field the Steelers have the chance to continue unlearning that lesson from a far more demanding teacher – the Baltimore Ravens.