PITTSBURGH — Just when the Pittsburgh Steelers start to round into contending form, their sloppy play forces you pump the brakes.
With all respect to Antonio Brown’s insane footwork, of course.
The gap with the New England Patriots is not exactly closed after the Steelers’ sluggish yet brilliant 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, a performance that required an insane, toe-dragging, 23-yard sideline catch by Brown to set up Chris Boswell’s 53-yard, game-winning kick in the final seconds.
The catch with 13 seconds left was so good that Ben Roethlisberger noticed officials were “almost like, ‘Did he really do that?’”
“Anything thrown his way is a catch,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said.
Coach Mike Tomlin can predict late-season fireworks with the Patriots, but don’t expect a solution to Tom Brady when Brett Hundley goes for 118 yards and two scores on his first five third-down attempts against the Steelers’ defense. (Still, that wasn’t a match for Roethlisberger, who posted his second straight four-touchdown game, along with 351 yards.)
As if the five first-half receiving drops weren’t enough, the Steelers’ pass defense again had leaky moments without the injured Joe Haden. Since Week 10, opponents have passing touchdowns of 54, 60, 61, 75 and 55 yards. Three of those came on the opening drive of a second half.
The very position the Steelers have tried voraciously to rebuild looks like a weakness at times. Actually, the entire defense looked disjointed as the Packers drove 77 yards on 12 plays for a Jamaal Williams touchdown with 2:02 left.
“We’ve got to eliminate the explosive plays,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “Then we’ll be a top-notch defense.”
Forcing Green Bay’s three-and-out in the final minute helped seal the game, though.
The momentum started to shift the Steelers’ way late in the third quarter, with a Cam Hayward sack to take Green Bay out of manageable field goal range and a six-play, 53-yard scoring drive that was all Le’Veon Bell and Brown. That defensive sequence late in the third was huge, with T.J. Watt showing his range on a pass deflection in coverage of Jordy Nelson.
But it took a full three quarters for Hundley to look at least mildly rattled — the quarterback with two touchdown passes in his first four NFL games in place of Aaron Rodgers. Yet there was Hundley, completing six of his first eight passes for 110 yards and two scores on throws outside the painted numbers,
The stars played like stars.
Bell posted his 38th career game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage, and Brown (169 yards) added his ninth and 10th touchdowns in his past four prime-time games. Each made breathtaking plays with a football playlist of open-field cuts and body contortions. And Martavis Bryant quieted the boos with a 17-yard touchdown.
“The last two series, [Brown] and I were just improvising and making plays,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s what is so special about him. … To me, the big story was the passing game. That was Le’Veon [12 catches, 88 yards]. They were trying to take away a lot of passes, and Le’Veon made play after play and bailed me out on checkdowns. As great as AB always is, Le’Veon was extra special today, too.”
But the Steelers generally didn’t have enough help from the supporting cast in a second straight game in which Roethlisberger was throwing the ball with authority. They missed the sure hands of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who missed action with a hamstring injury.
They converted eight of their first 12 third downs to offset the damage of three turnovers. And when all else fails, throw to Brown. Roethlisberger was 10-of-12 for 169 yards, two scores and 10 first downs when throwing to Brown.
The game never really felt in doubt for Pittsburgh, clearly the better team. But this performance should be more alarming than satisfying, at least from a defensive standpoint.
“We can’t lay down any kind of sympathy for nobody,” guard Ramon Foster said. “I don’t care what their record is. We have to smash faces.”