PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t make any sense. They can’t run the ball. They can’t stop the run. They can’t score a ton of points. They can’t win on the road.
And yet they’re still here, still in the mix with three games remaining after a mystifying 19-13 win over Tennessee on Sunday in which they were pushed around for the better part of three hours only to escape by providing the kind of “splash” plays on defense that can cover up a lot of warts, of which they still have many.
Four turnovers led to four Chris Boswell field goals. Joe Haden returned from a month on the sideline with the game-sealing tackle in the final seconds. The offense managed all of 168 yards, failed to score a first-half touchdown for the fourth straight game and managed all of 35 yards rushing.
And none of it mattered.
“I think we still have a pulse in this thing,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
Not just a faint one.
Most years, being 7-6-1 at Christmas usually means it’s time to start planning for next season. In 2021, it means you’ve got a shot. The Steelers woke up Monday a half-game back of first in the underwhelming and unpredictable AFC North.
Maybe that’s a testament to the blah-ness that has engulfed nearly the entire AFC. Still, Pittsburgh has consistently found a way to find a way when it absolutely needed to.
A blocked punt to spark a rally against Buffalo in the opener. A strip-sack by all-everything linebacker T.J. Watt to set up an overtime victory over Seattle. A game-saving swat by cornerback James Pierre against Denver. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns to stun Baltimore.
The Steelers don’t have enough talent to overwhelm opponents. And when it’s not close, it’s not close. Their six losses have come by an average of 12.6 points. In the past month alone they’ve found themselves trailing in the second half by 17 (Los Angeles Chargers), 38 (Cincinnati) and 29 (Minnesota).
No wonder coach Mike Tomlin sounds more relieved than optimistic while talking about his erratic group. Asked why pre-snap penalties keep cropping up 14 games in and he gruffly responded “because we’ve got issues.”
They’ve also — stunningly — got a chance.
“It’s better to win and learn than lose and learn at this point,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “But there’s a lot we can improve on.”