The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are why, in the NFL, it’s never over till it’s over. A month ago today, they were in final prep mode for a game in California against the Chargers. They were 1-4, floundering without the injured Ben Roethlisberger and the departed Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Their starting quarterback, Devlin Hodges, the 2018 Alabama state duck-calling champion, would be making his first NFL appearance.
They’re 4-0 since, of course. They beat the NFC’s 2018 Super Bowl representative Sunday.
Roethlisberger, on IR with an elbow injury, is trying to make himself useful on the sidelines during games. Bell is averaging 3.1 yards per carry, a lost (but rich) sheep in New Jersey with the Jets. Brown, a serial miscreant, is probably out for the season after being accused of sexual assault and charged with it by a Florida woman.
But the Steelers, they go on like metronomes. They even trade now; did you hear? They added a long-term and desperately needed middle linebacker in the draft, and Troy Polamalu 2.0 in a rich deal in September. Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick have re-made their defense. “Our defense is playing like the ’85 Bears,” quarterback Mason Rudolph told me Sunday night. Or maybe the ’76 Steelers.
If the playoffs started today, Pittsburgh would be the AFC’s sixth seed, a charming wild-card team.
Don’t chortle about the playoffs. Pittsburgh’s next six foes are a combined 17-37-1. You think they won’t be in the playoff hunt with Cleveland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo and the Jets on the horizon between now and Christmas?
It’s a new world in Pittsburgh, a totally unexpected one. The Steelers are 5-4, the same record as the Rams, Eagles, Cowboys and Raiders. One big difference: The Rams, Eagles, Cowboys and Raiders have had their franchise quarterbacks playing all season. Crazy NFL world.
What a weekend. Started with the overly smitten Oakland crowd, in the most impressive display of home-field love all weekend, carrying the Raiders to a win over the snakebitten (but not leaving) Chargers, continued Sunday with one of the weirdest rushing lines by a superstar in NFL history and Lamar Jackson taking breath away, and will end tonight with one of the most compelling matchups on Monday night in years between the (combined 15-2) Seahawks and the Niners. There’s more.
• The Dolphins look to be on the way to losing the Joe Burrow Bowl.
• Heavy odds on the 0-9 Bengals “earning” the first draft pick. They’re not a big trading team.
• Adam Vinatieri, walk-in Hall of Famer, is killing the Colts.
• The Browns, off life support for a week, are still in guarded condition.
• Dallas (5-4) leads Philadelphia (5-4) by tiebreaker only in the NFC East, and I don’t see the Cowboys keeping that lead.
• The Rams are 5-5 since Super Bowl Sunday, and Jared Goff is off. In a big way. They’re not imposing on offense anymore.
• Inexplicably, the Falcons held the Saints without a touchdown in New Orleans. (Oh, and in the battle of Louisiana: LSU 46, Saints 9.)
Have I mentioned the Steelers, with their 17-12 win over the Rams? Pittsburgh has such a deep defense, with two legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Fitzpatrick (five interceptions, two touchdowns) and pass-rusher T.J. Watt (9.5 sacks). Their guys come at you in waves. Goff singled out Joe Haden (five pass breakups, one pick), but he could have mentioned Cam Heyward, Mark Barron, Terrell Edmunds. The Rams’ leading wideout, Cooper Kupp, came into Heinz Field with 58 catches. He left with 58 catches and probably a few welts.
This Steelers team is like lots of the old ones: carried by the defense while the offense tries to catch up. It’s a bit like Roethlisberger’s rookie year, 2004, when the defense held 12 of 16 foes to 21 or less, while seven times they scored less than three touchdowns. “Or like the Cowher days,” said former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, now a Steeler analyst in the local media. “I think until Mason makes that jump, this is the way they’re going to play—relying on their defense. Since they made the trade for Minkah, they’re playing low-scoring games, and I think they’re comfortable with that style. It works for them.”
“But will Rudolph make the jump?” I asked Batch.
“I think so, but not till they solve their running-back issues,” Batch said. “They’ve got to get healthy at running back.” James Conner (shoulder) missed the Rams game, and it will be a challenge for him to be ready for Thursday night’s game in Cleveland.
Rudolph’s been adequate, a 65-percent passer with a 93.0 rating—but only 6.6 yards per attempt. He sounded chagrined when we spoke—perhaps feeling he’s not holding up his end of the deal—and honored to be the quarterback for a place that loves football so much. “Honestly, this all is so new for me,” said Rudolph, a third-round pick from Oklahoma State in 2018. “In the Big 12, we played shootouts every week. Here, it’s a totally different feel. We’re without our Hall of Fame quarterback, and I’m trying to be the best I can be. I think I’m developing every week, and [offensive coordinator] Randy [Fichtner] is doing a good job of correcting my mistakes. Obviously, it’s great to be playing with a defense that produces points every week.”
It’s got to be a heavy load, playing quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a place where the team is so interconnected with the psyche of the region. As the late owner Dan Rooney once told me: “You can walk down the street in Pittsburgh on a fall Monday morning and right away be able to tell if we won the game on Sunday. The people’s faces will tell you.” It’s got to be hard, too, when Brown and Bell are gone, and Jaylen Samuels and Diontae Johnson are trying to get up to speed to replace them. Fast.
“The standard is the standard,” Rudolph said from Pittsburgh. “The standard of excellence and greatness I understand and I don’t take lightly. I am motivated to uphold that standard. People live and die for the Steelers here. I want to make the legends proud.”
Around Pittsburgh, the legends have always been okay with defensive greatness ruling the Steelers. This is the first year in a while that seems destined for the defense to carry the team into important January games.