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The Pittsburgh Steelers give Green Bay a cruel lesson in finishing
Bad teams stay bad. Good teams find a way to win. Don't call Patrick Peterson "old," either.
PITTSBURGH — Patrick Peterson played his 197th career game on Sunday. Cornerbacks with his mileage are prone to break down any moment. Skeptics surely saw the Check Engine Light flicker on last season.
Keanu Neal tore his ACL (2018) and his Achilles (2019) before toggling from Atlanta to Dallas to Tampa Bay to, finally, Pittsburgh as an alleged relic, as the dreaded “box safety” unfit for the modern game. Back to his collegiate days in Florida, Neal has often resembled a headhunter straight out of the NFL’s “Jacked Up!” era of the early 2000s.
The new NFL should’ve ejected both to retirement.
They don’t have any business lining up in the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary with the game on the line.
With 3 minutes and 23 seconds remaining, ball at their 14-yard line, both should be exposed. Right here is when legs creak. The Green Bay Packers knew it, too. They targeted Peterson with an out-and-up route to 24-year-old Christian Watson and, instead, the two DBs were essentially balding, hairy-armed, sweatband-wearing, 50-year-olds schooling high-school kids at the neighborhood YMCA. Quarterback Jordan Love let it rip and Peterson wasn’t fooled. In the end zone, he tipped the ball with his left hand to Neal and Neal returned the interception 32 yards.
All week, the Steelers will be mocked as the luckiest 6-3 team in NFL history. They’ve got a minus-26 point differential and a passing game liable to hyperventilate for prolonged stretches.
But this decisive play is no accident. Never is.
A cold-hard NFL truth was revealed once again here at Acrisure Stadium: Good teams find a way to win. Bad teams find a way to lose. To the naked eye, these two teams seem strikingly similar. Both are quarterbacked by former first-rounders under heavy scrutiny. Both offenses have struggled to get into a rhythm early in games. But to their core, Matt LaFleur’s crew and Mike Tomlin’s crew are different species of football teams.
Ten weeks in, two polar-opposite identities were firmly established here.
Winning is breeding winning in Pittsburgh. Veterans rise up in crucial moments.
Losing is breeding losing in Green Bay. Youth backfires in the worst ways.
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The last time you heard about Peterson here at Go Long, Giants wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins was explaining how he victimized the eight-time Pro Bowler in the playoffs. I brought this up to him in the locker room and he was clearly irritated by anyone who views him as old.
“That’s crazy,” he says. “I am still making plays, but they’re talking about one play. I was top 10 in every category as a defensive back last year, but I’m getting old.”
Let’s start with the Packers.
This 2023 season has devolved into a depressing re-run.
Obviously, the problems run deeper than Love. Right when he catches fire for a career-high 289 passing yards, Aaron Jones has one of his worst games as a pro. The team’s star running back averaged 2.7 yards per carry, had a third-and-4 drop and was tackled by the shoelace on another red-zone screen that could’ve scored. The second Love touchdown most certainly qualified as a “make shit happen” throw Brett Favre desired. On third and 16, Love planted his back foot at the 47-yard line and hit rookie Jayden Reed on a rope.
But then a not-so-funny blooper doomed the Packers on the ensuing extra-point attempt: Josiah Deguara turned into a video-game glitch. The Packers tight end completely forgot to move. Peterson stormed in… dove… blocked the kick to keep it 17-13 Steelers and that single point loomed large. Green Bay kicked two field goals. Pittsburgh kicked two field goals. And down by four — instead of three — the Packers were forced to take shots at the end zone their final two drives.
On the first interception, the tip to Neal, Love noted that the Steelers jumped on the out route earlier in the game.
Translation: The Packers thought Watson, a decade younger, would waste Old Man Peterson in crunch time. They were wrong.
Peterson did not intentionally tip the ball to Neal. But he knew Pittsburgh had a high safety his side of the field, which is why he didn’t Dikembe spike the ball down. By instead volleying it into the air, the vet knew there was a decent chance his safety would be there. Even though Peterson couldn’t remember a play remotely close to this in his 13-year career, he knows pure instinct took over. Experience.
This was the type of play that makes Peterson worth every penny of his two-year, $14 million deal.
Once he noticed Watson breaking north, Peterson said he got his “eyes back around.”
“And that’s where a lot of DBs make a mistake,” he explained. “You’re always looking back at the quarterback. You’ve got to look high because the ball is coming out of the sky.”
Ball. Tip. Pick.
Added Neal: “I was just in the right place at the right time.”
In truth, it was a terrible play call. The Steelers bracketed Neal over Watson, which shrunk the play’s margin of error to microscopic proportions. Not ideal for such a raw team. Inside the Packers locker room, Watson was blunt. He called it “two against one,” and noted that Peterson was overplaying the outside. That didn’t leave him much grass to glide up the sideline, nor did it give Love much room for a throw.
“A tough coverage,” Watson said, “to try to beat on that play.”
On the second pick, the Steelers simply lined up seven defenders along the goal line.
Love shouldn’t be immune from criticism. The NFL is a bottom-line business and finishing has been his problem all season.
In the red zone — where football games are won and lost, where all windows are tight — he’s been off. The Packers scored only once on five trips. Settling for those two chip-shot field goals came back to bite Green Bay and Love could’ve given his receivers a better shot at making a play the final two picks. On the first, audibling to a different play would’ve been smart if he had such autonomy. Or getting more air under the ball. With experience, with reps… and reps… and reps… maybe one signal at the line of scrimmage leads to a touchdown pass to someone else. It took Aaron Rodgers a while to find such a rapport with receivers, and he inherited a loaded receiving corps.
On the second pick, it would’ve been smarter to escape the pocket and give a receiver — perhaps 6-foot-6 Luke Musgrave? — an opportunity at a jump ball.
And, yes. Packers fans have every right to be pissed this morning. The league’s officials miraculously find new ways to embarrass themselves each week.
This time, they ruled an (obvious) backward lateral a forward pass. Clearly, the owners don’t give a damn. They’d rather obsess over contrived problems such as “taunting,” such as Josh Allen playfully pointing at a defender who jumps at his pump fake or Tyreek Hill doing a selfie backflip, than sincerely preserve the sport’s integrity. Coaches and players can only say a few Hail Marys before kickoff that they’re the team that benefits from inevitable buffoonery. Those victimized simply must move on — the game continues.
The Steelers were not the benefactors of mere luck this afternoon.
At some point, you’re either a team that can finish or a team that cannot. It’s the same reason the Minnesota Vikings’ 11 one-score wins last season were a sign of true progress. There’s no metric on TruMedia that brings fourth-quarter belief to light but players on those Vikes could feel it. So even as those outcomes flipped to begin this 2023 season, even as Kevin O’Connell’s team started 1-4, before then losing both superstar Justin Jefferson to a hamstring injury and quarterback Kirk Cousins to a torn Achilles, they’re 6-4. They’re thinking playoffs again. If Nick Foles can beat Tom Brady in a Super Bowl, Joshua Dobbs can lead the Vikings to a 12-win season.
No. 1, the soul of the Vikings is strong. At this rate, O’Connell deserves Coach of the Year consideration. And so does Mike Tomlin. This is all the seam reason his Steelers were able to stay in the playoff race back in ‘19 with Devlin “Duck” Hodges at quarterback.
The Steelers, under Tomlin, are forever a team that’ll seize on your kick protector falling asleep at the wheel.
Peterson had a feeling his block would come in handy. That point stayed in the back of his mind.
Like Miles Killebrew blocking a punt against the Ravens earlier this season, one special teams play changed the complexion of a Steelers game. Despite giving up yards to Love in bunches and despite missed opportunities of their own — Diontae Johnson dropped one deep ball — the Steelers proved again why they’re always one of the NFL’s best fourth-quarter teams. It’s little moments, like journeyman Elijah Riley blitzing past A.J. Dillon to force a third-and-7 incompletion. And it’s more cosmic, too. Like running the ball right down the Packers’ throat when everyone expects it. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry loaded the box with defenders and the Steelers didn’t give a damn. Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris combined for 183 rushing yards on 31 attempts with a touchdown apiece.
Which came after the duo went for 157 yards on 26 attempts against the Titans.
Which came after a public challenge from the head coach.
Following a crushing loss to Jacksonville, Tomlin did everything he could to bury officiating as an excuse. He wanted to leave egregious calls in the past. A few moments later, Tomlin was asked about his anemic ground game. In that Jags loss, Harris and Warren combined for 32 yards on 12 carries.
“We’re continually working to get better,” the head coach said sternly, “and we’d better.”
Voila. Now, the Steelers’ sputtering offense has an identity.
Warren, especially, made a mockery of flailing Packers defenders. You’ll see better tackling than this in a high school football game.
Wins sparkle elsewhere. The Detroit Lions took down the Los Angeles Chargers in a rousing 41-38 shootout that featured four 4th-down conversions. Dan Campbell, once again, chose to believe in his players than punt a game away. C.J. Stroud waltzed right into the MVP race with a 356-yard day in Cincinnati. Here, the Steelers are constantly discovering funky ways to win and they’ll now lean into a burgeoning rushing attack and an opportunistic defense. With passing numbers down ‘round the league, hey, it might even work.
Peterson has learned how sharp Tomlin is at making midgame adjustments defensively. Calls it true “intuition.”
Every coach preaches on and on about the virtues of amnesia, of always moving onto the next play. It’s real in Pittsburgh.
“We’re very optimistic,” Peterson said. “We find ways to lean on one another. We preach and talk about ‘get the ball out, got to have it.’ That's just the culture around here and we just find ways to make those timely to help our team win ballgames. … We find a way to stick together and the continuity that they have here starting with Coach Tomlin and TA (Teryl Austin) and the guys that’ve been around here that understand what Coach Tomlin and Pittsburgh Steelers is all about.”
And, during the week, the tenor is a decibel or two more ruthless. Tomlin has always been this way, back to his days as a 34-year-old defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. He seeks a hardened team. As the Steelers continue to transition out of the Ben Roethlisberger Era, youth is obviously critical. They’ll need 25-year-old Kenny Pickett, 22-year-old George Pickens and 25-year-old Warren to emerge as the potent core on offense. But veterans are needed to deliver tough-love messages throughout a roster. Week-in and week-out, the Packers are doomed by undisciplined, dumb football. To some degree. And, hey, wasn’t Rich Bisaccia the godsend to this historically inept special-teams unit? These Packers never steal possessions or points.
Unlike Pittsburgh. This roster is a healthy mix of youth and vets.
Vets with something to prove.
“I know there’s a lot of naysayers,” Neal said. “It’s happened my whole career. It’s part of the game. Being a guy that can play in the box and do those things at a high level. That’s kind of what comes with it — the ‘lack of coverage ability.’ I give up things from time to time, but I don’t think I get enough credit for (a play like) that. It’s part of the game. I don’t feed into it. I know what I can do. Same as Pat P. He’s been written off a lot, too. But he has a history of what he does and he’s still doing it at a high level.
Inside the grim Packers locker room, to his credit, Watson tried his best to explain this rerun.
Sometimes, he gets double-teamed. Sometimes, it’s Romeo Doubs. He said it changes “play to play.” The Packers expect one look, get another and often fail to adjust. Considering Doubs’ success in the red zone, they weren’t expecting Pittsburgh to bracket Watson. In practice, he connects with Love on fade routes all the time. “Game time,” he admits, “it just different.” He wouldn’t use youth as an excuse.
“We’re not leaning on the fact that we’re young,” Watson said. “We’re losing games. We’re losing more games than we want to, so it's a tough situation.”
Not many offensive players have been in these pressure-packed situations.
When I asked Watson who exactly is speaking up, he didn’t hesitate.
“We’ve got a lot of leadership,” he said. “I don’t think that the personalities that we have on the team or the leadership on the team is the reason that we’re not having success. We’ve just got to find a way to just execute more. Make more plays and stop them from making more plays. But I think that in the leadership department, I think we’re all there. Every position group has somebody to lean on regardless of how many years or how much experience someone has.”
In the receiver room, he says it’s himself and Doubs.
Maybe he’s right, but experience mattered this game.
Experience is relative, too.
Not only does Pittsburgh have a potential Hall of Famer in Peterson. They’ve got a corner in Joey Porter Jr. whose best childhood memories occurred right inside this stadium as a kid watching his Dad sack quarterbacks. He remembers rocking to Styx’s “Renegade” in the bowl as a little kid and cannot believe he gets to enjoy this moment himself alongside T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith.
No, Porter Jr. cannot put his finger on exactly why this Steelers defense awakens when that song blares in the fourth quarter. But the switch is real, and it’s a byproduct of everything Tomlin preaches during the week. This defense shines when backed up against its own goal line. “Don’t blink” is the Tomlinism that comes to mind after this win.
“Anything can happen in this league,” Porter Jr. continues. “So we’re never settled until that clock hits zero, and that’s the mindset we keep going with.”
The Steelers drafted him 32nd overall last spring for a specific reason, exactly as they signed Peterson and Neal for a reason.
So, on second thought, none of this a coincidence.
“No accident,” Porter Jr. affirms.
The Steelers can blink for a moment to enjoy this win. Then, it’s off to Cleveland and Cincinnati for two division games that may boomerang them into legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The Packers, meanwhile, have entered the gauntlet portion of their schedule in the same familiar rut. They’ll find a way to keep one or two of these games against contenders close.
But then? Chances are, they’ll find a way to lose.
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