BALTIMORE — The Pittsburgh Steelers finishing the 2023 season with a 10-7 record was fairly predictable.
The Steelers were 9-8 last year. They were in the second year with quarterback Kenny Pickett, so some small progress made sense.
The way they got there? A path that no one could have predicted.
Let’s recap, shall we?
The offense was an unmitigated disaster for much of the season, with the Steelers taking the extreme step of firing offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the first time they’d fired a coordinator in-season since World War II. They replaced him with running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, a man with basically no experience as an offensive coordinator, who doesn’t even call the offensive plays.
Pickett failed to take a significant step forward, and then suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss the final five and a half games of the season.
The defense was so snake-bitten by injuries at two positions that they finished the regular season playing a potential Hall of Famer out of position, one player that hadn’t been on an NFL team all season as of the end of October and another that had retired in August before the Steelers convinced him to come back to the game.
Both of the team’s starting wide receivers took fire for significant plays where they gave essentially zero effort, which was a sign to some that head coach Mike Tomlin had lost the locker room.
Amid that negativity, the Steelers lost consecutive home games to two-win teams, and saw their record fall to 7-7 with three weeks to play in the season, starting up at the AFC playoff picture from the 10th seed.
Three weeks later, they’ve had the two of the best three offensive games of the season with Faulkner and Mike Sullivan calling plays for third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph (the third was played in a frozen monsoon), Eric Rowe and Myles Jack came off their couches to become key members of the defense, Patrick Peterson might’ve extended his career with a move to safety, and the team has unquestionably come together to play for one another down the stretch run.
How? That’s the question I set out to answer in the Steelers locker room after Saturday’s game, and the answers I got were interesting.
Some seemed just as confused by it as everyone else.
“Not really, no,” Rudolph said when asked if he’s been able to process the last three weeks. “I’m enjoying each day.”
But if I had to sum the response of the locker room with one word, I would use Peterson’s: “desperation.”
Desperation is the only reason that Tomlin turned to Rudolph in the first place, with Pickett injured and Mitch Trubisky floundering. Desperation is the only reason that any NFL team would turn to two players who were watching from home to become key starters.
Desperation isn’t a place that any team plans to visit over the course of a season, and there are times that the negativity that leads a team to the brink of that desperation can be overwhelming. Teams fall apart. They let that negativity become a downward spiral they can’t overcome.
This Steelers team let that desperation become a rallying cry. “Off the couch,” head coach Mike Tomlin shouted, referencing Jack and Rowe, as he came off the field.
Mike Tomlin comes off the field saying “off the couch,” an apt description of this injury-marred defense and the place they found replacements. pic.twitter.com/O15gRxsJzS
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) January 7, 2024
“Those two guys have been significant not only today, but over the last three weeks, in terms of what we’ve done,” he said.
Most importantly, when a team that appeared to be fracturing got its back against the wall, its response was to come together in a more significant way than they had all season.
“It just came down to just guys doing what they do, and doing routine things routinely,” Peterson said. “I just feel like we kind of lost focus of that in that three-game losing streak.
“Coach (Tomlin) did a great job making sure that we understood that everything is still right there in front of us. We just had to continue leaning on one another and play with a little bit of desperation.”
That was a perspective shared by veteran and rookie alike.
“It’s just us playing better as a team,” said rookie tackle Broderick Jones. “I just feel like everybody’s on the same page. That goes a long way, just playing for the man next to you and for your brothers.”
How did the Steelers go from Diontae Johnson not giving effort to recover a fumble and George Pickens not blocking for Jaylen Warren to playing for one another on a frozen, rain-soaked night in Baltimore?
“It’s just the resiliency of the team,” veteran linebacker Elandon Roberts said. “Guys ignored the outside noise and just started grinding and put their heads down and going to work. … We were just laser-focused to get back on track. Ignore the noise and I think we did a great job of doing that.”
When teams talk about outside noise, they are usually talking about things that people outside the organization are saying that are outside of their control. But the outside noise around the Steelers was largely about things that were inside their control going badly.
“We really needed this, to be honest” Johnson said. “A lot. We’ve been going up and down, trying to figure out, how can we win, put points on the board, how can we stop the run? A lot of things. We just never drifted. We stayed locked in. We stayed as one and we focused on what really matters. That’s us.
“If we continue to do that, we can go far. You see how we play. The energy. We feed off each other. That’s all we’ve got to do.”
The Steelers need to get some help on Sunday to get into the playoffs, but whether they do or they don’t, the club’s veterans feel the response to the desperation with resiliency and togetherness will be a career-long lesson for the younger players.
“It takes one game to turn things around or be the game that changes the tide a little bit,” wide receiver Allen Robinson II said. “Coach T always says you want to be a guy that’s on the rise. It’s the same with this team. With this group. For us, hopefully we’ve done enough to be able to kind of see that pay off.”
“To give ourselves a shot, we had to win these three games and that we did,” Peterson said. “At the end of the day, these young fellas are going to be in our shoes some day. You always want to make sure you’re telling guys, no matter what the scenario is or the situation is, you’ve got to put your best foot forward and end your year off with a bang so you can ride on to the playoffs or the following season after this.”
The Steelers certainly did that. They regained a significant amount of faith from the fanbase, and more importantly, in one another.
The Steelers grew up. Now they have to hope it didn’t happen one game too late.