Opinion: Steelers show their creativity, mettle can compensate for flaws

BALTIMORE — After he and his team had their lunch handed to them for a half of football, Ben Roethlisberger decided to im for the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

The game plan for taking on the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens hadn’t worked on either side of the ball, and if things continued at that embarrassing rate, the Steelers’ perfect record would have ended at six games.

So when he and his teammates retook the field in the second half, Big Ben went into playground mode. 

Empty backfield, no huddle, drawing it up on the fly. Literally.

“My whole career, people have said I always had the playground, backyard football,” Roethlisberger acknowledged. “Today it was in its truest form. … The line, I'd basically tell them here's the protection, everybody else. There were plays where I'd say, 'JuJu (Smith-Schuster), you run this, Ray-Ray (McCloud), you run this.’"

The freelancing worked to perfection. A once-stagnant attack came to life. Dinking and dunking their way up and down the field, the Steelers erased a double-digit deficit and escaped M&T Bank Stadium with a 28-24 victory and improved to 7-0 on the season. 

Pittsburgh’s players and coaches viewed the victory as their grittiest performance yet and said the triumph could wind up ranking among one of the defining moments of their season. 

“We look adversity in the face, and we attack it, and that’s why we came out victorious,” tight end Eric Ebron said. 

Not a bad way to put it.

For the bulk of Sunday’s rain-soaked game, the Steelers looked nothing like a team capable of contending for AFC preeminence. The defense surrendered 179 rushing yards in the first half alone, and the offense mustered just 64 total yards during the same span. Had it not been for a Lamar Jackson pick-six to linebacker Robert Spillane on the third play from scrimmage, and the quarterback's later fumble in scoring position, the 17-7 halftime deficit Pittsburgh faced would have been much worse.

But in the final two quarters of football, the Steelers displayed incredible resilience and made an undeniable statement. 

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane, left, celebrates with free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick after after scoring on an interception of a pass from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, not visible, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Baltimore. (Photo: Nick Wass, AP)

In a conference where everyone is chasing the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers may not possess the artistry and consistent big-play capability of the defending Super Bowl champions. But they do possess the adaptability, aggression and poise necessary to weather most every form of calamity that comes their way. 

And really, that’s all that matters in the NFL. A team isn’t going to always have it’s mojo. Things will go haywire, and uncharacteristic struggles may crop up.

A week after surviving a last-minute surge by the Tennessee Titans in a battle of unbeaten teams, the Steelers again found a way to win and remain imperfectly perfect in the one column that matters most.

“We weren't pretty today on offense. No one blew up the stat sheet,” said Roethlisberger, who finished with just 182 passing yards and two touchdowns. “They got after us and it wasn't pretty. Nothing about this game was pretty from our perspective until the game was over and we looked at the scoreboard and saw we had won. At the end of the day, that's all that matters.”

As coach Mike Tomlin put it, “They were beating us to the punch a little bit and that's just life. We adjusted. We didn't blink. Can't say enough about the guys and their mental toughs. They supported one another, they didn't fall apart, and that's as important as anything.”

Baltimore entered the game at an advantage as it came off of a bye and had additional time to study and prepare for the Steelers. The Ravens outgained the Steelers 457-221 and outrushed them 265-48, which should have been a recipe for success.

But some familiar shortcomings manifested themselves as the Ravens committed nine penalties for 110 yards, the bulk of them on defense to help extend Pittsburgh drives. And uncharacteristic struggles popped up as well. Jackson, who entered the game with only two interceptions on the season, threw two picks and fumbled three times, losing two of them. 

Flexibility and versatility also provided salvation for the Steelers, as did the halftime intermission.

“We had to settle that down,” Tomlin said. “They threw some things at us, man. They were a group coming off of a bye and knew it was going to be tough sledding early on, and we had to adjust. We needed that 12 minutes at halftime to recalibrate ourselves, eliminate some things on our menu and  highlight some things that would be critical to the challenges that would present us.”

The recalibration involved the Steelers shifting their defensive personnel to use more linebackers. A great display of that ingenuity came when Alex Highsmith — the fifth linebacker on the field — picked off Jackson at the Baltimore 21-yard-line early in the third quarter. Two plays later, Pittsburgh cut the lead to 17-14 as Roethlisberger connected with Ebron, who ran untouched for an 18-yard score. 

Offensively, the Steelers’ empty backfield package gave the Ravens a look that they hadn’t seen before, and the up-tempo, no-huddle pace made it hard for Baltimore to substitute. As Roethlisberger made up plays on the fly, Baltimore defenders struggled to adjust and anticipate. Pittsburgh capitalized by reclaiming the lead twice in the second half and then mounting a last-second defensive stop on a pass breakup in the end zone.

As the first half and even portions of the second half reflected, Pittsburgh certainly is a flawed squad despite their perfect record. But that’s OK as long as the group possesses the tools and fortitude to overcome those flaws. Sometimes, a team has to be able to win ugly, and the Steelers certainly have proven they can do that. 

Through Tomlin’s leadership, the experience that Roethlisberger brings and the young talent on both sides of the ball, the Steelers boast the ingredients and well-rounded recipe to win by playing their brand of football. 

Will it be enough to match a drastically different opponent such as Kansas City in a postseason matchup? Time will tell. But for now, the Steelers are proving they have the answers to tests immediately in front of them.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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