Steelers Ride Ball-Hawking Defense Into Playoff Position

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Rams Steelers Football
Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Terrell Edmunds (34) breaks up a pass in the end zone intended for ... [+] Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Josh Reynolds (83) during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. The Steelers won 17-12. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

It was obvious two plays into Sunday’s game what kind of night it was going to be for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense.

A shotgun snap from perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey sailed over quarterback Mason Rudolph’s head. Los Angeles Rams linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. picked up the loose ball and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown.

Fourteen seconds into the game, the Steeles were trailing 7-0.

However, the defense saved the day as it played a major role in the Steelers continuing to turn around what once seemed to be a lost season.

Pittsburgh ran its winning streak to four games with a 17-12 victory over the defending NFC champions to move its record to 5-4. That includes five wins in seven games since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sustained a season-ending elbow injury.

The Steelers not only surpassed the .5i00 mark but now hold the second AFC wild card despite beginning the season with three consecutive losses.

Fowler’s scoop and score turned out to the Rams’ lone touchdown. Los Angeles also recorded a safety, but its offense managed only a field goal in 15 possessions.

The Steelers forced the Rams into four takeways — three interceptions and a fumble — and allowed them to convert only one third-down play in 14 attempts. Pittsburgh also had four sacks of Jared Goff along with nine quarterback hits.

Thus, the Steelers were able to overcome an offensive effort that produced only one touchdown and 273 total yards.

In ugly game that featured 23 penalties, six turnovers and 17 punts along with seemingly 192 replay review, the Steelers’ defensive effort was beautiful in the eyes of coach Mike Tomlin.

“That was fun,” Tomlin said with a smile as he opened his post-game press conference. “That was mean, but it was required. It was one of those hard, defensive battles. When you are playing a good opponent like the LA Rams, that is how you’re going to play.”

The Steelers’ 26 takeaways this season are second in the NFL, one fewer than the New England Patriots. Last year, Pittsburgh was 29th in the league in that category with just 15.

The performance is so impressive that has Rudolph comparing the Steelers defense to one of the greatest units in NFL history.

“They’re playing like the ’85 Bears,” he said. “It seems like every week they are forcing turnovers every other series.”

Tomlin’s priority coming into this season was forcing more turnovers and he believes the Steelers’ success in doing that has been a combination of an aggressive mentality and playing physically.

“We have been open about that we need turnovers,” Tomlin said. “Great defenses get themselves off the field. Great defenses stand up in the face of adversity when put on a short field. We have worked hard in that area. It starts first with the acquisition of guys that are capable in that area.”

One of those acquisitions is strong safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, acquired Sept. 16 from the Miami Dolphins in a trade for the Steelers’ first-round draft pick in 2020.

Fitzpatrick again led the way for the defense as he intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble. Both plays were pivotal as he returned the fumble 43 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter put the Steelers ahead for good 14-7 and his interceptions with 30 seconds remaining sealed the win.

Fitzpatrick has made a huge impact since being acquired from the Miami Dolphins in a trade for the Steelers’ first-round draft pick in 2020 on Sept. 16. In nine games, the second-year pro has five interceptions and three fumble recoveries. He had just two interceptions and no fumble recoveries last season as a rookie.

“Minkah is a level-headed guy that his play is steeped in preparation,” Tomlin said. “I haven’t been around him very long, none of us have, but we all know that he has a love for football, and it is displayed in the urgency in which he works daily. Not only on the field but in the classroom. He is very professional.

“It is football justice as far as we are concerned. It is not anything mystical. He doesn’t have a rabbit’s foot in his pocket. He is preparing and taking advantage of opportunities.”

The Steelers also shut down Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who had zero receptions on four targets. He entered the game third in the NFL in receiving yards (792) and third in catches (56).

Tomlin was surprised – and quite happy — when told Kupp was held without a catch.

“We doubled him a lot,” Tomlin said. “He is the No. 1 receiver in the NFL on third down. All our third-down discussions started there. Minimizing his ability to impact the game in that way and then working out from there.”

The plan worked to perfection, which didn’t surprise veteran cornerback Joe Haden.

“Everybody is just feeling it and knowing that if everyone is on their game, we can make plays,” Haden said. “I think every one of the 11 people out they think they are going to get a strip sack, a pick or punch the ball out. We’re having a ball.”

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