INDIANAPOLIS — Scrambling and bracing for a hit, Ben Roethlisberger stepped up and floated a pretty, off-balance touch pass to Antonio Brown between two defenders. Brown whipped his way across the field for 32 yards and into field goal range in the final seconds.
Game sealed for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with Chris Boswell connecting from 33 yards as time expired. Roethlisberger looked like Big Ben, at least for a moment, adding a 69-yard game-winning scoring drive to his personal record books.
Nothing else about Sunday’s performance was that pretty. Much of it was pretty ghastly, actually. But the Steelers showed serious resolve with a 20-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts, overcoming a 14-point deficit for the third time since last season, an NFL record.
“When AB and I start making plays, it’s pretty fun,” said Roethlisberger, who finished 19-of-31 for 236 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. “I just have to get him the ball and he does the rest.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wanted more splash plays, and linebacker Ryan Shazier, like he has all year, gladly obliged by sniffing out a screen pass and snatching an acrobatic interception to set up the tying touchdown.
When the Steelers needed points, Roethlisberger and the offense found a way to deliver. They deserve credit for avoiding a repeat of the Chicago game in Week 3, and the Dolphins game last year, and a few other head-scratching road losses before then.
But the Colts are still bad, which gets exposed over 60 minutes. The sack lanes would eventually open, the bad interception would eventually happen and the defense would eventually crack. After giving up two 60-yard touchdown receptions, the Steelers finally tightened up late.
For as much credit the Steelers get for showing second-half fight, they get equal ripping for playing this sluggish coming off the bye, which several players cited as a problem.
“We got to be better on offense, we got to be better on some third-down situations,” Tomlin said. “We got to tackle better on defense. I thought we allowed them to stay on the field with some shoddy tackling, particularly early. You give up some good plays, you got a chance to lose football games. We are fortunate to win this game giving up those two long touchdown passes. But we will go back to the lab, get back to work. There is a lot of negativity to talk about, but we will talk about that negativity with a win and that’s my preference.”
A win or loss wouldn’t mask problems for a team with a propensity for miscues that reached a near-comical level Sunday.
Those included failed blitz pickups, poor tackling technique, dropped snaps, holding calls, biting on fakes, drops, errant deep balls, living on third-and-long, blocked extra points, field goals off the upright, and leaving running backs in coverage for easy dump-off first downs. The Steelers couldn’t even celebrate a touchdown right, with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Le’Veon Bell executing some goofy chokehold in the third quarter.
The Steelers did nearly everything wrong, which might be less of a positive than a glaring caution sign.
The well-worn trend of spoiling contention with sloppy road play is an issue. Roethlisberger made timely second-half throws, but his accuracy on deep balls — once a major strength in 2015 and early 2016 — looked off again.
The Steelers’ erratic passing game was supposed to find a safe landing strip in the Colts, who gave up 13 touchdowns to zero interceptions in the previous three meetings with Roethlisberger.
Instead, the Steelers were nearly shut out in a first half for the third time since 2012. The last two shutouts were against Baltimore. This near-shutout was against the league’s worst defense.
This was peak stink: Late in the first quarter, the Steelers had holding calls on three straight snaps — two on punting attempts — costing at least 20 yards of field position. Four plays later, the Colts were in the end zone on a 60-yard Donte Moncrief touchdown that featured corner Artie Burns looking like a rookie again, biting hard on a double move.
A positive is Smith-Schuster (97 yards) becoming a serious playmaker. He’s making defenses pay for Brown double-teams. And Martavis Bryant‘s big plays — including a two-point conversion and a third-down conversion off a crossing route in the final two minutes — give him much-needed positivity and shows he’s ready to come up big when needed.
The Steelers usually don’t give up big touchdown bombs, so let’s call this an aberration. But you can’t call the entire performance that. There are issues that must be resolved, and quickly.
Through all this, Bell calls his team ‘resilient.’
“We haven’t played the perfect game yet,” Bell said. “We did enough to win the game. As long as we do enough to win next week, we should be fine.”