Steelers Defense Sparks Another Late Rally to Defeat the Rams
Following an entirely lackluster first half with the Steelers trailing 9-3, T.J. Watt showed once again why he’s the Steelers’ preeminent impact player. Jumping a pass route over the short middle, Watt grabbed a crucial interception on the Rams’ first offensive play of the third quarter and returned the ball to the Rams’ 7-yard line to set up the Steelers’ first TD and a 10-9 lead.
But as suddenly as Steelers Nation’s hopes had soared on Watt’s pick, they soon came crashing back to earth when the Rams mounted a 9-play, 75-yard TD drive to take a 17-10 lead with the 2-point conversion midway through the third quarter. When the Steelers offense fizzled once again with a 3-and-out on their next possession, the picture was looking quite bleak at 7:16 of the third half quarter when Pittsburgh was forced to punt.
But fortunately this also marked the point when the Steelers collectively began turning the tide on both sides of the ball on their way to a 24-17 victory. The Steelers defense stepped up again, halting the Rams offense at midfield and forcing them to attempt an 51-yard FG which missed the mark. Then on the first play of the final quarter, Kenny Pickett connected with Diontae Johnson on a huge, 39-yard catch and run. The last two plays of the drive showcased the considerable, inside running talents of Jaylen Warren, capped by his 13-yard burst up the middle for a game-tying TD.
Once again, the Steelers defense came through at a crucial stage of the game, forcing the Rams offense into a quick 3-and-out highlighted by Joey Porter Jr’s clutch defense of a 3rd-and-3 pass intended for Rams’ rookie phenom Puka Nacua. Then, starting on their own 20-yard line, Pickett drove the previously-inept offense 80 yards, featuring key passes to George Pickens, Diontae Johnson and Connor Heyward. Najee Harris capped off the drive with a tough, 3-yard TD run with 7:20 remaining. Responding yet again, the Steelers defense clinched the win by slowing down the Rams offense and forcing them to use all of their timeouts. This left no option at 2:00 on the clock for L.A. to challenge the officials’ first-down spot on Pickett’s 4th-and-1 sneak attempt.
Despite that incident and some questionable penalties which hurt the Steelers’ cause, ultimately it was Pittsburgh’s defense that sealed the victory by continually setting the table for a plodding offense. That offense converted only 4 of 12 third down situations for the entire game and none in the entire first half. Pickett and company were able to compile only 110 total yards through the game’s first three quarters.
But while the overall effort in L.A. was similar to the Black-and-gold’s previous wins, some definite positives emerged that appear to signify some tangible progress. Most importantly, the Steelers defense has proven itself to be quite a resilient unit capable of keeping the offense within striking distance of their opponents through four quarters of play. Considering the notable absence of Cam Heyward and their gritty refusal to fold under pressure in the final quarter, this represents a significant accomplishment.
While Watt’s huge interception undoubtedly was the spark for the Steelers’ late rally, the defense played well as a unit, especially in shutting down the Rams offense when the game was on the line. Young defenders including Joey Porter Jr., Nick Herbig, Keeanu Benton and Demarvin Leal have been gaining valuable experience under fire this season, and doing so in winning efforts. Veterans Watt, Alex Highsmith, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cole Holcomb, Larry Ogunjobi, Kwan Alexander and Elandon Roberts appear to gradually be pulling the entire group together.
Despite the continuing struggles of the Steelers offense, we’re seeing definite progress by the OL as the season unfolds. While Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren compiled a total of only 85 yards rushing in L.A., the OL periodically opened some respectable running lanes, most notably on Warren’s 13-yard TD burst at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Warren finished the game with six carries for 32 yards (5.3-yard average) while Harris had 14 carries for 53 yards (3.8-yard average). Platooning these two talented backs — while costing them the statistical achievements they might prefer — seems to be an effective scheme, not only for keeping both of them fresh, but also in forcing opponents’ defenses to adjust to their contrasting styles and strengths. Despite the inevitable comparisons which fans and pundits enjoy making, there’s no need at this point to designate either back as the team’s No. 1 or No. 2 RB.
Regardless of his mediocre performance during the first three quarters, Pickett wound up with a rating of 97.1 with 230 yards passing and a 9.2-yard average with no interceptions (albeit with one near-pick). Kenny outperformed his veteran counterpart Matthew Stafford, whose rating for the game was a pedestrian 72.6. Pittsburgh’s stodgy offense — which never reached the Red Zone until Watt’s interception set them up there — scored TDs on all three of its Red Zone opportunities in the second half. The return to action of Diontae Johnson (5 catches for 79 yards) proved to be another important factor in the win.
As the Steelers look forward to hosting the 5-2 Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday at Acrisure Stadium in Week 8, they scarcely can claim to have solved their persistent, offensive issues. Currently basking in the glow of a 4-2 record — which seemed beyond the realm of possibility following drubbings at the hands of the 49ers and Texans — Steelers Nation still needs to consider what might happen when the Black-and-gold squares off against another powerful offense.
It’s obvious that a Steelers offense capable of producing in only one quarter out of four isn’t going to suffice over the long haul. But in the wake of another impressive defensive effort, and given the sporadic signs of life we’ve seen from the offense, it appears the Steelers might have bought themselves some time to address their weaknesses by getting off to a start considerably better than many expected.
Realizing that setbacks inevitably await along the road to December football, we’re at least starting to see some hints of the progress which every NFL team must make to become a consistent winner. While this transition certainly isn’t happening as quickly or smoothly as fans might prefer, it’s a hopeful sign that the Steelers now have won four of their six games despite some obvious shortcomings. Moving forward, the hope in Steelers Nation is that we’re witnessing the emergence of a Steelers offense which eventually might show the capacity to thrill fans in quarters other than strictly the fourth.