There was some chatter early in the season that the Steelers defense was too old and too slow for the team to compete for the AFC title.
Don’t expect to hear much of that after Sunday’s 25-17 victory over the Patriots. Until a touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots offense couldn’t sustain any offensive momentum against the Steelers defense. Tom Brady was under a fair amount of pressure, his receivers were well covered and the Patriots barely bothered trying to run the ball after falling behind on the first drive of the game. The performance was impressive under any circumstances, but the fact that it came without James Harrison and James Farrior makes the effort jump out at you all the more.
It was fitting that the final Patriots chance ended with a safety. Brady, who finished with a season-low 198 passing yards, got the ball knocked out of his hands by Brett Keisel and the ball rolled out the back of the end zone with a little help from a diving Troy Polamalu. The effort wasn’t even hampered all that much by a LaMarr Woodley hamstring injury, although that’s surely a concern going forward.
Equally impressive was the work done by Ben Roethlisberger and his receiving corps. Roethlisberger shredded the Pats for 365 yards on the afternoon with 21 of his 36 completions going to Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. The Steelers offense looked as dynamic as it has all season. They didn’t run the ball all that much, but Rashard Mendenhall wound up with 70 yards on 13 carries.
The Patriots knew they had work to do in the secondary, but the effort is going to be critical now. They face the Giants and Eli Manning next week with Manning on a serious roll throwing the ball and Bill Belichick’s defense doesn’t look like it is good enough to take the Patriots any further than they’ve advanced in the last two seasons.
Belichick knows it, too. After Brady hit Aaron Hernandez for a touchdown with 2:40 to play in the game, Belichick chose to try an onside kick despite having all three timeouts at his disposal. Stephen Gostkowski muffed the kick and it didn’t go 10 yards. The Steelers picked up a first down and the game was all but over at that point.
With the Ravens coming to town next week, the Steelers are in position to take over the top spot in the AFC. After their Week One loss to Baltimore, that seemed like a long shot. After Sunday, it seems like it makes perfect sense.