When the Pittsburgh Steelers lost starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury, it was assumed that any chances of making the playoffs went down with him.
The Steelers were done.
When they lost at home in overtime to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5 to fall to 1-4 on the season, the question wasn't whether the Steelers had a chance to make the postseason. It was whether Pittsburgh could avoid (by its standards) a historically bad campaign.
Pittsburgh was super-done.
However, head coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers apparently didn't get the memo. After downing the Los Angeles Rams 17-12 at Heinz Field in Week 10, they have peeled off four consecutive wins to move above .500 for the first time this season. If the campaign ended today, the Steelers would be the No. 6 seed in the AFC.
Pittsburgh has gone from stone dead to the unlikeliest of playoff contenders, and the players who have led them there are even unlikelier heroes.
The engine driving the Steelers during their winning streak is something fans in the Steel City have become accustomed to seeing over the years: a punishing defense. They entered Week 10 ranked in the top 15 in total defense and scoring defense. Their 29 sacks through the first nine weeks ranked sixth in the league, and only the New England Patriots had more takeaways.
That defense kept rolling against the Rams.
The Steelers allowed 306 yards of total offense, but they piled up four sacks and an equal number of takeaways—including a fumble return for a score. The Rams were an atrocious 1-of-14 on third down and didn't score an offensive touchdown.
The team's defensive MVP wasn't even with the Steelers when the season started. When Pittsburgh traded its first-round pick in 2020 to the Miami Dolphins for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, some pundits blasted the team for giving up so much just after losing its quarterback for the year.
Since then, all Fitzpatrick has done is make a case to be named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Over his first season and change with the Dolphins, the former Alabama standout had two interceptions. His game-sealing pick against the Rams on Sunday was his fifth since joining the Steelers. It was Fitzpatrick who returned that Jared Goff fumble for a touchdown, and it marked the second week in a row he found the end zone.
As Ed Bouchette wrote for The Athletic, Fitzpatrick has a big fan in Pittsburgh edge-rusher T.J. Watt:
"He's a splash playmaker, and it's not a surprise to a lot of us who see the work he puts in off and on the field," Watt said. "How he approaches film study and the notes he takes. I sit next to him in team meetings, he's always jotting down notes and I'm seeing a lot of things that aren't even brought up at meetings that I say to him, 'What the heck are you writing down, man?' He's always got something. Clearly, he has a system down, and he's goes out and practices really hard. He's structured and always making sure he's well prepared for practice. He's just a true professional, and it shows by paying off on Sunday."
Fitzpatrick isn't the only Pittsburgh defender playing well.
Watt is well on his way to another double-digit sack season, and defensive lineman Cameron Heyward has been a force up front. But Fitzpatrick's effect on the Steelers defense can't be overstated. As Next Gen Stats pointed out prior to Sunday's win, the back end of the Pittsburgh defense has gone from a glaring weakness to potentially the unit's biggest strength:
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Minkah Fitzpatrick's play at safety has had a huge impact on the @steelers secondary since Week 3. @minkfitz_21 has aligned as a deep safety on 85% of snaps with the Steelers (22% with Dolphins) and has helped shut down opponents' deep passing attacks. #HereWeGo https://t.co/9v5FFdO7DV
As well as the defense has played, the Steelers still need to occasionally score points on offense, too. And that's where young backup quarterback Mason Rudolph comes in.
Rudolph's numbers have hardly been gaudy. He threw for 242 yards and a score against the Rams and was averaging just over 180 yards per game entering Week 10.
But Rudolph has thrown 11 touchdown passes against just four interceptions and has a passer rating over 90. He's not making mistakes and is making plays when he needs to—including Sunday during a contest in which the run game was non-existent with James Conner on the shelf again.
"Mason, he's a good quarterback. He's gonna go out there and compete. He's gonna prepare all week during the week. We're going out there on defense trying to prepare him, give him different looks and everything else like that. It's our job to support him as a young quarterback. It's tough in this league, defense throwing things at you that you haven't gone against. But he's doing a good job, and we're just trying to do our job to go out there, compete our hardest for him, and support him."
That's the thing. This Steelers team might not have the star power on offense of years past. There are no "Killer Bs." But the players are rallying around one another.
If the Steelers need a score, the offense finds a way to get one. If Pittsburgh needs a stop, the defense stiffens and gets it done.
It's a testament to Tomlin, who has done an excellent job this season. Rather than unraveling, his Steelers have come together, circled the wagons and fought for one another.
And it shows on the field.
On Thursday, the Steelers will travel to Cleveland to face a 3-6 Browns team that hasn't beaten Pittsburgh since 2014. After that come the winless Bengals, followed by Cleveland again and then the 3-6-1 Arizona Cardinals. Given how well Pittsburgh is playing (especially defensively), three wins over that span isn't a huge stretch. This is a team that could easily be 8-5—or even 9-4—a month from now.
Not only would that set the Steelers up quite nicely in the hunt for a wild-card spot, but it might also put them back in the division race. The AFC North-leading Ravens are about to play four straight games against teams with winning records. Pittsburgh's Week 17 trip to Baltimore could carry the highest of stakes.
Given where the Steelers were after that Week 5 meeting, that's about as unlikely as unlikely gets.
And yet here we are.