Heading into Monday night's 30-23 win against the Houston Texans, the struggling Steelers were perceived as a team in a hole, a team with a lot of issues to work out. That was bound to happen, and it happens to teams all the time. It just wasn't supposed to happen to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After a series of questionable drafts, iffy free agent moves and questionable salary cap management, the franchise that has been perhaps the NFL's most stable over the last four decades has hit a bottom that it's rarely known since Chuck Noll started winning championships in the early 1970s.
With two straight 8-8 seasons behind them, the Steelers came into the game against the Texans with a 3-3 record and all kinds of question marks on both sides of the ball. Why is offensive coordinator Todd Haley unable to create game plans that play to Ben Roethlisberger's strengths? Why is a defense run by Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau flagging? And what is head coach Mike Tomlin doing about it?
Voices from the past weighed in this week, as former head coach Bill Cowher and ex-receiver Hines Ward each wondered exactly what kind of Steelers team they were seeing. After Pittsburgh looked all too ordinary in a 31-10 loss to the Browns on Oct. 12, Cowher called his old team "soft," and Ward echoed those concerns on NBC.
"They're very close to hitting that panic button," Ward said. "The defense looks soft. Guys are just able to run the ball up and down the field. I look at their personnel; they can't cover anybody in the secondary. Offensively, I thought I'd never say it, but the Steelers are a finesse offense right now. I don't even know who these guys are."
Not what you want to hear, but all the Steelers could do was sharpen their resolve and hope things would turn around.
"A lot of the media likes to point fingers," Roethlisberger told ESPN this week. "They point blame at people, and a lot of times, they don't know what they're talking about. So, you can't let it bother you. We -- players here in the locker room -- know what's going on, and that's why when those things are said, it's just kind of brushed off."
It took a while for them to brush it off against the Texans, who rolled out to a quick advantage against what looked to be the Same New Steelers.
When Texans kicker Randy Bullock booted a 38-yard field goal with 7:20 left in the first half, Houston had a 13-0 lead over a Pittsburgh team that looked typically moribund, and you could hear the boo-birds at Heinz Field.
Nobody could have possibly expected what was going to happen a few minutes later.
It all started when Shaun Suisham kicked a 44-yard field goal with 3:13 left in the second quarter at the end of a drive punctuated by a 43-yard pass to running back Le'Veon Bell. Then, after Pittsburgh's defense stiffened and forced Houston into a three-and-out, Roethlisberger beat Houston's defense with one of his better deep balls. A rocket to Martavis Bryant went for 35 yards and Pittsburgh's first touchdown of the night.
Texans running back Arian Foster fumbled on the subsequent drive, giving Pittsburgh the ball at Houston's three-yard line, at which point the beleaguered Haley reached deep into his bag of tricks. The next call was a toss sweep to receiver Antonio Brown, who then reversed field back to the left side, and then threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore as Roethlisberger threw a cut block on a linebacker to keep the play alive.
Then, on Houston's next drive, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a pass under pressure than bounced off end Brett Keisel, then off linebacker Lawrence Timmons, then back to Keisel, who rumbled with the interception to the Houston eight-yard line. A six-yard pass to Brown and a two-yard pass to Bell later, and the Steelers had scored 24 unanswered points in 2:54 of clock time to lead at the half. It was the first time any team had scored 21 points in the final two minutes of a half since ... the Texans did in the first week of the 2012 season against the Dolphins, when they put up 21 at the end of the first half.
"It was crazy," Roethlisberger said after the game. "You know, we got the ball and we got points, and we got the ball and we got points, and you never expect to score points that fast, but you've got to be ready. Give a lot of credit to our defense for giving us the ball, and us finding a way to get it in."
Sadly for Bill O'Brien's team, there were no similar miracles in the works on this night. Fitzpatrick is a limited quarterback with questionable arm strength and occasionally goofy decision-making. He's not going to define a game with his arm. He needs a support system around him, and when he's playing against a defense that smells blood, it isn't pretty. Coming into this game, Fitzpatrick had completed 23 of 50 passes when under pressure, for no touchdowns and three interceptions. And as it's been through the season, when the Texans needed splash plays to shock themselves back into a game, they weren't forthcoming.
It didn't help that as the game went on and things became more desperate for the Texans, they responded with some questionable on-field awareness. On the fourth-quarter drive that ended with Suisham's 30-yard field goal with 5:50 left, two different penalties on third-down plays gave the Steelers first downs. And on Houston's next drive, receiver DeAndre Hopkins failed to hold onto a catch as he was hit by safety Mike Mitchell, and Troy Polamalu came up with the fumble recovery. That sealed the game at 27-16, through Suisham booted one more field goal and Foster scored a late touchdown to make the final score 30-23. Houston had a chance on the onside kick after their score, but it missed the recovery by just that much.
In the end, this Steelers team showed remnants of its legacy. LeBeau threw a compelling series of fronts and blitzes at Fitzpatrick, who completed 21 of 32 passes of 262 yards. Roethlisberger completed 25 of 33 passes for 265 yards and several killer deep throws, especially to Brown, who finished with nine catches for 90 yards. Roethlisberger called Brown a "game-changer," and he proved it once again. As for All-World defensive lineman J.J. Watt, he got in Big Ben's kitchen a couple of times, coming up with a sack, two quarterback hits and a fumble recovery, but it wasn't nearly enough for a Texans defense with clear issues with its linebacker corps and secondary.
It was Pittsburgh's night, with some questionable officiating calls along the way. At 4-3, the Steelers have a nice look at life over .500. They're still a team that can't glue two straight wins together, but they'll get a shot at reversing that trend against the Colts next Sunday. The Texans are left with a 3-4 record after winning their first two games of the 2014 season, matching their 2013 win total.
"I think we fought through some adversity," Roethlisberger concluded. "We got behind early, we fought back, we did good in the red zone, our defense played great. We still let a lot of plays -- I gotta play a little better still, we all do, and we'll make our improvements."
But this was a night to answer back to all the critics, especially of the in-house variety.