The Steelers no longer are among the huddled masses of the NFL’s winless teams after their 30-27 win at Tampa Bay Monday night. They stay out of the AFC North basement, they have a better record than the Patriots and we will not have to re-live the horror of 2013’s 0-4 start.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the Steelers (1-1-1) will have to win at least eight more games to make the playoffs, and they needed every fiber of their being to get that win Monday night. They almost blew a 20-point lead for the first time in franchise history. They allowed 455 yards on defense. They committed 13 penalties and Chris Boswell missed an extra point and a 47-yard field goal attempt.
Do the Steelers really have what it takes to pull this off eight, nine or 10 more times?
They just might if certain players can reproduce their breakout performances.
Like Vance McDonald.
The tight end caught four passes for 112 yards and a touchdown. Those 112 yards matched the career high he set in the playoff loss to Jacksonville in January. Most of those yards, however, came in garbage time. McDonald’s yardage last night packed a lot more punch.
If the Steelers do win more games this season, McDonald’s stiff arm could turn out to be the defining moment that turned the season around.
The Steelers trailed 7-0 in the first quarter and weren’t looking a whole lot better than they looked in the opening minutes of their Week 2 loss to the Chiefs. They already had committed two penalties. Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception and nearly fumbled a snap. The Steelers faced a third-and-10 at their own 25 when Roethlisberger completed a pass to McDonald near midfield and McDonald stiff-armed Bucs’ safety Chris Conte to the ground and rambled into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown.
McDonald caught just 14 passes for the Steelers last season after he was acquired in a trade from the 49ers. He’s never caught more than 30 passes in a season, but on Monday night he actually looked like an athletic tight end. If he keeps that up he has a real shot at being a legitimate threat to opposing defenses.
He caught another third-down pass for 12 yards to set up Boswell’s 36-yard field goal that gave the Steelers a 9-7 lead early in the second quarter.
In between McDonald’s pivotal receptions, the Steelers got more help from an unlikely source when Anthony Chickillo sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick to push the Bucs out of field-goal range and force them to punt.
After the Steelers took the lead, Mike Hilton terminated the Bucs’ next two drives. He recovered a fumble to give the Steelers a short field for Roethlisberger’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown that increased the Steelers’ lead to 16-7. Then Hilton intercepted Fitzpatrick deep in Steelers territory.
An undrafted cornerback who bounced between the Jaguars and Patriots practice squads in 2016, Hilton was a find for the Steelers last year with four sacks and two interceptions. He showed last night that he can be more than just a one-year wonder as long as the elbow injury he suffered isn’t too serious.
Hilton’s pick came on a pass that was deflected by Jon Bostic. An inside linebacker signed as a free agent, Bostic was thrown into the vast void left by Ryan Shazier‘s injury. No one expects him to do what Shazier did, but he did plenty in this game, leading the Steelers in solo tackles with six and tackles for loss with two. He added a sack on the Bucs’ opening drive of the second half, giving him two for the year. That’s 40 percent of the sixth-year journeyman’s career total of five.
For the Steelers’ defense to improve, role players like Bostic and Hilton will need to keep contributing here and there. Terrell Edmunds and Bud Dupree, on the other hand, are first-round draft picks who are expected to be game-changing, impact players.
And they were in this game.
Hilton’s interception was the first of three straight Tampa Bay possessions that ended in picks. Edmunds, the rookie safety, picked off Fitzpatrick on the next drive, and then Dupree turned his first career interception into a 10-yard pick-six to make the score 23-7. Dupree also had a sack, his second of the season, on the Bucs’ first drive of the second half. That sack as well as Bostic’s on that drive ultimately helped preserve the win as the Bucs’ settled for a field goal. Dupree added 1.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback hits to hush the “bust” talk for at least a week.
The first half fittingly ended with more production from the fringes of the roster. Ryan Switzer, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Cowboys last year and traded twice during the offseason, caught his first career touchdown pass to give the Steelers a 30-10 halftime lead.
Were it not for that touchdown, the Steelers wouldn’t have held on for the win. Their 29th-ranked defense allowed 17 second-half points and the penalties kept coming. The Steelers are the NFL’s most penalized team and it isn’t even close. According to nflpenalties.com, 37 penalties against them have been accepted this year. The Bills are second with 28. The Steelers have been penalized for 361 yards. The Eagles are second with 266.
For the Steelers to make the playoffs this year, the offense will have to keep lighting up the scoreboard and the defense will have to force turnovers to make up for its inability to stop anyone. The Steelers forced four turnovers Monday night, but when the takeaways don’t come it would help if the Steelers cleaned up these penalties. That seems more correctable than the talent shortcomings on defense.
The defense did force a three-and-out on the Buccaneers’ last possession, thanks partly to one of Joe Haden‘s three pass breakups. Having him back is a boost. Then the Steelers needed a couple of first downs to seal the win. The first came on a vintage Roethlisberger play. He slipped out of a Gerald McCoy sack and threw an 18-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Then James Conner‘s 17-yard run took them to the two-minute warning, and it was victory formation time.
While holding off the Buccaneers’ furious rally to win the game, the Steelers made a dramatic comeback themselves to win another game.
While it was easy to forget that Le’Veon Bell even existed in the first half, his holdout was starting to loom like a Florida storm cloud over the stadium in the second half. The Steelers couldn’t sustain drives to run out the clock, and Conner had gained just 12 yards on his first 10 carrries.
But Conner broke free for 27 yards to stall the Bucs’ momentum after they had just pulled to within 30-27. He followed that up with a nine-yard gain. The Steelers had to punt on that drive, but Conner’s game-clinching 17-yard gain capped a 51-yard outburst on his last five carries. It was redemption for his fumble in Cleveland and it gave the Steelers a few points in their public-opinion battle with Bell.
It would be very difficult for the Steelers to trade Bell, so they have to plan to be without him in 2018. If Bell thinks he’s sticking it to the Steelers by sitting out, well, they stuck it back to him with the way Conner closed out the victory.
And, really, for the Steelers to win more than just one game they’ll need to overcome problems that one star player alone can’t fix. However, several complementary players might be able to plug the holes on a week-to-week basis. That’s what happened on Monday night.
Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.