PITTSBURGH — Tom Brady was in striking range with one more shot. Fourth down. Raucous crowd. Game on the line.
The setup was like that of the many times the Pittsburgh Steelers had their hopes up against this particular team … only to be crushed by Brady or some other form of misery.
And here they were, with the stage set for more heartbreak.
No wonder, charged to protect a seven-point lead with 20 seconds on the clock, the instructions were rather clear and simple for the secondary when the Steelers broke from the final timeout with the ball on their 21-yard line.
“Just back up,” Pittsburgh cornerback Joe Haden recalled. “Don’t let ‘em score.”
Apparently, everybody listened above the nervous roar at Heinz Field.
“For sure,” Haden confirmed.
Cam Heyward, the rock of a defensive end, had a plan, too, for the Steelers’ front line.
“Don’t get behind the quarterback,” he recalled of the message. “It can’t be that quick of a pass because they’d just gotten the penalty before. Just put pressure in his face.”
Brady stepped up and set himself to launch a spiral to the end zone. After failing to connect with tight end Rob Gronkowski on the previous two passes to the end zone, he threw deep left for Julian Edelman, who was surrounded by three defenders. No chance. Morgan Burnett batted the ball away.
And that was that. After five consecutive losses against their nemesis from Foxborough, the Steelers didn’t wilt in crunch time against Brady this time.
But really, it was so much deeper than emerging with a 17-10 triumph against Bill Belichick’s team. The Steelers (8-5-1) just needed to beat anybody to stop the bleeding of a three-game losing streak and re-establish their playoff mission.
“I’m not going to lie to you. It was nice to beat them,” Steelers offensive guard David DeCastro as the locker room emptied.
DeCastro said that the Steelers reveled in that achievement for a brief moment, confirming what they knew all along but needed to prove.
“Even though I’ve never beat (the Patriots) in my career, the Ravens are still a half-game behind us,” DeCastro said, alluding to the AFC North race. “We’ll enjoy it for a day, and then we have to move on.”
Sure, the Steelers have thought repeatedly in recent years that they could beat New England. Yet the smart money said it might happen because their deeply talented offense could light up the scoreboard. Shoot, it almost happened last year before Jesse James’ would-be touchdown catch was overruled on instant replay and Ben Roethlisberger threw an end zone pick.
With the Patriots fielding their most suspect defense in years, conditions were ripe on Sunday for Big Ben, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Co. to go bonkers. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to a shootout.
The big twist on Sunday wasn’t that the Steelers beat the Patriots, it was how they won.
They won it, in one regard, with the Patriots making way too many mental errors, reflected by New England’s 14 penalties for 106 yards. Usually, it’s the often-undisciplined Steelers who shoot themselves in the foot. But they were so composed this time, committing just four penalties for 40 yards.
But the real stamp on the effort was that they won with an often-battered defense saving the day. Roethlisberger threw two picks and passed for a season-low 235 yards. If it wasn’t for rookie running back Jaylen Samuels (142 yards rushing, 30 receiving), filling in for the injured James Conner, Pittsburgh’s offense would have really been in a jam.
Given the manner in which Pittsburgh lost its three previous games there was the serious pattern of squandering opportunities to finish games.
When a team loses three games in a row, there’s always much blame to go around. There was the mishap at Oakland when Chris Boswell slipped on the turf as he attempted a game-tying field goal. The Roethlisberger end zone pick at Denver. The multi-sided collapse against the Chargers.
And a defense that didn’t force a single takeaway during the three-game losing streak.
“This is a step,” Haden said. “For the past three weeks, we haven’t been closing games the way we wanted to. We felt like, ‘C’mon guys, it’s on us. Let’s save the offense this time.’ “
It was no fluke. Before Brady’s final, desperate heaves to the end zone – set up by a 34-yard completion over the middle to Edelman – there was a drive earlier in the fourth quarter that had reached the Steelers’ 5-yard line for a first-and-goal.
That threat, though, was unhinged by a holding penalty. Then it was squashed by Haden’s spectacular, leaping interception near the sideline. Brady, pressured by T.J. Watt, said he attempted to throw the ball out of bounds. But there was not enough zip for that.
“I was waiting for it for a long time,” Haden said.
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