DETROIT - The Pittsburgh Steelers were playing their third road game of the season, providing you ignore the possibility that the black-and-gold horde outnumbered the home team's fans yesterday at Ford Field, and for the third time the defense faced the prospect of crash landing short of the finish line.
It happened in Chicago and then in Cincinnati, late leads dissolving into bitter defeats.
And there would have been no more bitter a taste than if it had happened again yesterday against the Detroit Lions and their backup quarterback, Daunte Culpepper.
A seemingly safe 28-13 lead, forged on three Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes, was on the board before Culpepper drove the Lions 82 yards for a score with five minutes to play. About two minutes later Detroit had the ball again and on the first play following the 2:00 warning, Culpepper hit Dennis Northcutt for a 22-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 21-yard line.
A touchdown, a two-point conversion, and the Lions might have been about to arrive. The Steelers, conversely, might have been about to depart. But a still-proud defense would have nothing of it.
Pittsburgh, as it has so often through the years, became Blitzburgh and recorded sacks on three straight plays - crazy, exotic blitzes, according to Culpepper - for 24 yards in losses to drop the curtain on a 28-20 Steelers win.
Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh's great defensive coordinator, called the same blitz on two straight plays, overloading the left side of the defensive line and bringing outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley, the Michigan native and University of Michigan product, and cornerback William Gay through the same lane.
Lions running back Kevin Smith, held in for protection, had to make a choice. The first time he took on Gay, and Woodley whipped past Detroit's right tackle to make the sack. The next time he tried to tie up Woodley, and Gay cut inside of his big teammate and streaked through to drop Culpepper.
"It was just the right play-calling, and we executed," said Woodley, who had not recorded a sack in four previous games. "We went out and attacked and finished. It helped that [the Lions] were racing against time a little and they couldn't screen and bootleg, which is how they'd gotten a lot of yards and big plays. There wasn't time to do that. So we attacked."
And they didn't stop attacking on third down. LeBeau dialed up another blitz from another angle, and this time it was inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who nailed Culpepper for a 13-yard loss.
That made it fourth-and-34 and, folks, quarterbacks can't make a living on fourth down with 34 yards to go.
"We've got to be able to throw the ball away, protect, do whatever to avoid [sacks] right there," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "That took us out of the chance we had at the end of the game."
To an extent, so did a second-quarter leg injury that knocked 6-foot-5 Calvin Johnson, the Lions' star receiver, out of the game. On fourth-and-34, all Culpepper could do was launch something high and deep, and none of the Lions' smaller receivers could out-vertical Ike Taylor, who swatted the ball away to end Detroit's day.
"Teams are coming at us thinking they can win in the fourth quarter," said Steelers free safety Ryan Clark. "So this was good. Like coach LeBeau said, that wasn't the Pittsburgh Steelers. What we did at the end today, bringing pressure and being the aggressors, that's the Steelers."
Well, almost, said linebacker James Harrison, who had three of the seven sacks Pittsburgh recorded yesterday.
"We finished better than we have, but we still let them go downfield and get the touchdown that brought them close," he said.
It was good enough for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who said his team was "far from perfect; we acknowledge that. But it helps when you're able to keep working to be better and get some wins along the way."
The Lions, especially playing short-handed, don't seem to have that luxury, especially playing
essentially a neutral-site game.
"Steeler Nation was awesome today," Tomlin said, acknowledging an estimated 25,000 fans wearing black and gold and waving their Terrible Towels.
And when it mattered, on the road, in a tough spot, Steeler Defense was equally awesome. Finally.
Contact Blade sports columnist
Dave Hackenberg at:
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