In one of the ugliest games played in Heinz Field history, the Pittsburgh Steelers fought the winless Detroit Lions to a 16-16 tie in overtime.
- The story lines coming out of this game are nearly limitless.
You want to talk about injuries? You’ve got it. Questionable calls. Check! Missed opportunities. Yep. And then some. Opportunities to second guess the play calling? You bet. Failure on fundamentals? You can say that again.
In truth, neither team deserved to win this game. But if nothing else this comedy of errors offers a timely reality check for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Diontae Johnson fumbles in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
COVID-19 Strikes Big Ben at the 11th Hour
Less than 24 hours before the game news broke that Ben Roethlisberger had tested positive for COVID-19 and was out for the game. Mason Rudolph had practiced most of the week due to Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury, so the backup would at least avoid coming in cold.
- And Mason Rudolph and the Steelers offense started hot.
The Steelers offense opened the game as they have many times this season: By marching down the field for a touchdown. There weren’t a lot of fireworks on this drive, just some solid runs by Najee Harris, some chink and dink short passing to Ray-Ray McCloud, James Washington and Eric Ebron.
The Lions pitched in, leaving James Washington wide open in the end zone, allowing the two Oklahoma State Cowboys to hook up for an easy touchdown. With 9:40 left to play in the first half, things were looking very good for the home team at Heinz Field.
Unfortunately, this was about as good as it was going to get.
Steelers Run Defense Does Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde Routine. Again.
After 9 games there is one thing you can say about the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 defense: Either it is very good against the run or it is terrible.
- But there IS no in between.
Early in the second quarter Jermar Jefferson ran 28 yards, going untouched for about his first 24 for a touchdown. Jefferson would suffer an injury on the play, but the Lions running game was about to roar to life.
The next time the Lions got the ball, their running backs ripped off 3 double digit wins, including a 10 yarder on 4th and one that allowed Detroit to kick a field goal to tie the game at the half. The Lions were only sharpening their claws.
Getting the ball after half time, the Lions pounced with:
- 12 and 16 yard runs by D’Andre Swift
- 14 and 42 yard runs by Godwin Igwebuike, the latter of which went for a touchdown.
Igwebuike’s touchdown gave Detroit a 16 to 10 lead, there it would stay as Ryan Santoso missed his extra point. But would it matter?
Steelers Defense Remembers to Tackle, Offense Shifts into Low Gear
On their opening drive the Detroit Lions gouged the Steelers for 85 yards and they made it look easy. Then a funny thing happened. During the rest of regulation, they totaled 47 yards, including two drives that ended with negative yards.
When asked to about the manic-depressive nature of the schematics of his run defense, Mike Tomlin begged off explaining:
There was a guy out of place or two initially. But if you had to wrap it in a bow and talk about globally, we had to tackle better. As the game wore on, we did. And we settled it down. But the damage was the damage.
Normally, you wouldn’t think of a defense giving up 16 points with 12:09 left to play in the 3rd quarter as “damage,” but after scoring their first touchdown, the Steelers offense slipped into low gear – and there it remained.
- It wasn’t so much that Mason Rudolph was playing poorly. He just wasn’t playing particularly well.
Rudolph didn’t have a ton of help from his receivers. Both James Washington and Diontae Johnson failed to come up with key combat catches. Matt Canada’s play calling was questionable. Although Najee Harris was running fairly well, Rudolph threw the ball 50 times. In doing so, he stuck with the safe routes on the side lines, which limited Pat Freiermuth’s role in the offense.
Still, Rudolph played well enough to position Chris Boswell for two field goals, earning a tie in regulation. That set up the most unusual overtime in team, if not NFL history.
Overtime – A Comedy of Errors
Terrell Edmunds sacks Jared Goff in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla
It is unfortunate for their sake, that Terrell Edmunds, Cam Heyward, James Pierre, Joe Schobert and Minkah Fitzpatrick made some exceptional plays in overtime, (although Fitzpatrick’s was nullified by penalty.)
Each of those could have been and should have been the proverbial “turning” point in overtime.
- They weren’t — because the Steelers kept turning the tide back in Detroit’s favor.
On their second play, Mason Rudolph hit Diontae Johnson who flipped the field, moving the Steelers into Lion’s territory. Unfortunately, he fumbled the ball. Detroit recovered. Minkah made his interception but Devin Bush got called for very questionable hold. Detroit got into field goal range, gave up a holding penalty on third down, and promptly missed their field goal attempt. The Steelers had new life.
- The Steelers answered with a nice 4-yard run.
- Then Kendrick Green snapped the ball way over Rudolph’s head, bringing up 2nd and 23.
The Steelers punted, and the Lions gained -13 yards on their next drive, thanks in large part to Edmunds’ sack.
The Steelers got the ball back. Rudolph hit McCloud, Ebron and Harris to move the Steelers to midfield. Then he hit Freiermuth, who got them to the Detroit 39 and ostensibly in field goal range – then Freiermuth fumbled.
Detroit got a desperation pass, but they only managed to go 14 yards.
Welcome to Your 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers
Mathematically, a tie is better than a loss. But coming at home, against a winless team that seemed determined to lose the game in overtime?
- It leaves the Steelers with little to feel good about.
Sure, the Steelers lost two starting offensive lineman, lost T.J. Watt and lost Joe Haden during the game, but the Lions were playing with a skeleton crew at many spots on their depth chart.
- That, and Jared Goff quarterback was clearly hurting.
After starting 1-3, the Steelers rebounded to win 4 straight. But the result of each of those games has been in doubt until late in the 4th quarter if not the buzzer itself. While no team in the NFL rides “On Any Given Sunday” to four straight wins, the question has been, “How high is the 2021 Steelers ceiling?”
After tying Detroit the answer appears to be, “Not very high.”