Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Defense the catalyst as Steelers beat Rams to reach a winning record
It was a homecoming game for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Pittsburgh product, as former Penn Hills and Pitt star Aaron Donald returned to Heinz Field for the first time with the Los Angeles Rams on a night the Super Bowl XIV champions were honored.
This is no Steel Curtain, but the defense continued to be the catalyst for the Steelers.
In a game filled with turnovers and overturned plays, the Steelers survived a safety, avoided a late fourth-quarter turnover and came up with one to clinch a 17-12 victory over the Rams on Sunday.
After a 1-4 start, the Steelers (5-4) have won four consecutive games to finally reach a winning record.
And the best part is this: They play the Cleveland Browns next.
1. Snap decision: Dante Fowler was ready and in perfect position when Maurkice Pouncey’s snap slipped through the hands of Mason Rudolph early in the first quarter.
The Rams outside linebacker blew past right tackle Chuks Okorafor and scooped up the loose ball and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
It was the kind of costly mistake the Steelers could least afford, and it occurred only 14 seconds into the game.
Little did we know the tone it would set.
2. Reversal of fortunes: The Rams appeared to get another turnover when Rudolph threw a wobbly pass that landed in the hands of cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.
The interception was nullified when the Rams were flagged for pass interference by Jalen Ramsey.
It was a game-changing penalty.
The Steelers went from second-and-20 at the L.A. 39 to first-and-10 at the 20, and a 13-yard pass to James Washington gave the Steelers a first-and-goal at the 5.
Two plays later, Rudolph found Washington in the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7-7 with 34 seconds left in the first quarter.
And the Steelers suddenly had the momentum.
3. Strip-six: There were wild momentum swings, none more so than in the final three minutes of the first half.
Washington caught a pass for a 34-yard gain — thanks to a nice chip block by Diontae Johnson — but was stripped by Robey-Coleman for a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Cory Littleton at the L.A. 38.
But Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave bull-rushed David Edwards and knocked the ball out of Jared Goff’s hands before he could throw a pass.
Like Fowler before him, Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was positioned to recover the fumble. Fitzpatrick returned it 43 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 1:44 left in the half.
It was the second consecutive game Fitzpatrick turned a turnover into a touchdown, the first Steelers defender to do so since Sam Washington in Weeks 3 and 4 in 1984.
With every play he makes, Fitzpatrick is making the Miami trade look like a steal for the Steelers.
4. Nothing special: The Rams had several opportunities on special teams to change the course of the game but failed to take advantage.
Early in the second quarter, the Steelers sent Diontae Johnson back to return a punt, but he fumbled while changing direction. The loose ball, however, was recovered by Steelers linebacker Vince Williams.
The Rams also were positioned for a field goal to end the first half, but a holding penalty on Edwards pushed them back to their own 49 before a 13-yard pass to Robert Woods put them at the Steelers’ 38.
Greg Zuerlein trotted out for a 50-yard attempt with 3 seconds remaining, a chance to cut the Steelers’ lead to four. Zuerlein had plenty of leg — the ball hit the net behind the goalposts — but sailed it wide left.
Then, in the third quarter, came the most inexplicable call.
Goff was hit on second down and replaced on third-and-2 by Blake Bortles, who knocked the Steelers out of the AFC Divisional playoffs two years ago with Jacksonville.
Bortles faked an inside handoff and ran a bootleg right but was stopped a yard short. That forced the Rams to punt, but Johnny Hekker lined up under center before dropping into a shotgun formation for what appeared to be a quick kick.
Instead of punting, Hekker threw a pass that was picked off by Steelers special-teams ace Trey Edmunds.
5. Safety dance: Donald was every bit as disruptive as the Steelers feared he would be, even if Rudolph was able to avoid sacks by getting rid of the ball.
That ended in the fourth quarter, shortly after Zuerlein’s 30-yard field goal cut the Steelers’ lead to 14-10.
The Steelers started at their own 5. When Rudolph dropped into the end zone for a pass, Donald came crashing in for a safety that linebacker Clay Matthews cleaned up.
Suddenly, the Steelers’ lead had shrunk to 14-12.
But it wasn’t over yet.
The Steelers got a 33-yard field goal by Chris Boswell to increase their lead to 17-12 and made a defensive stand as strong safety Terrell Edmunds broke up a pass in the end zone. But the Steelers were forced to punt and had to make one more stop. That’s when Joe Haden tipped a pass into the hands of Fitzpatrick for an interception.
A fitting end for the Steelers.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .