Close defeats are becoming all too familiar for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have dropped three of their four games this season by a combined nine points.
The one they endured Sunday was more difficult to digest than the rest.
What could have been remembered as a storybook comeback victory led by third-string quarterback Devlin Hodges disintegrated into a 26-23 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field.
After overcoming 10-0 and 17-7 deficits to take a 23-20 lead with less than three minutes remaining, the Steelers watched Justin Tucker kick a tying field goal with 10 seconds left in regulation and the winner with 5:26 left in OT. That field goal was set up by a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble that gave the Ravens the ball at the Steelers 34.
The final two of Tucker’s four field goals traveled 48 and 46 yards, respectively. When his final one sneaked inside the left upright, it dropped the Steelers to 1-4 and kept the Ravens in first place in the AFC North at 3-2.
“It’s painful, as it should be,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Tough, hard-fought game. We’ll do what we normally do. We’ll assess it and prepare for our next opportunity. We won’t blink. We won’t make excuses for our current state. We won’t seek sympathy.”
The Steelers make their second trip to the West Coast in four weeks when they play at the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night. They are 1-6 on the far coast during Tomlin’s tenure, and they might be tasked with playing without quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was knocked from the game in the third quarter with a concussion.
Hodges replaced Rudolph and directed a touchdown drive that gave the Steelers a 20-17 lead with 3:42 left in the third and a field-goal drive that provided a 23-20 advantage with 2:37 left in regulation.
It was a surreal scene considering Hodges was an undrafted free agent from Division I FCS Samford who was signed out of a rookie tryout camp. Hodges was cut after the preseason but rejoined the Steelers after they traded Joshua Dobbs to Jacksonville on Sept. 9.
Hodges completed 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards against the Ravens.
“We love him,” tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “He’s a hell of a football player. His college resume is pretty impressive. A lot of people don’t know about him, but we’re excited to have him on the team.”
Rudolph completed 13 of 20 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown before departing. He was injured when he took a shot under the chin from safety Earl Thomas’ helmet. Thomas was penalized 15 yards for roughing the passer.
Rudolph was prone for several moments, then sat up and was assisted from the field by teammates when the motorized medical cart stalled.
“When he was on the ground, it looked like it was a lot more serious than just a simple hit,” Villanueva said. “Everybody’s got the CPR, and he was breathing, which was good. (But) he wasn’t having a good time.”
Hodges converted a third-and-8 with a 13-yard pass to Diontae Johnson, and a 14-yard pass to Vance McDonald set up James Conner’s 1-yard touchdown that provided the Steelers with their first lead.
Chris Boswell’s third field goal, a 33-yarder, set up Hodges to be the hero.
The feel-good moment, however, was spoiled when the Ravens, benefiting from a roughing-the-passer call against linebacker Ola Adeniyi, moved the ball to the Steelers 30, where Tucker booted the tying field goal.
For the overtime coin toss, captain Cameron Heyward was sent out with instructions to kick away and have the Steelers defense the south — or open — end zone. Unhappy with a kickoff return unit that averaged 14 yards on three attempts, Tomlin didn’t want his offense being potentially hurt again by poor field position to open overtime.
“Mike T challenged us, and we embraced that challenge,” Heyward said. “We have to continue to keep going.”
A defense that had five sacks and three interceptions yet was on the field for 39 minutes forced a three-and-out, and the Steelers got the ball back at their 32.
“We got off the field,” Heyward said, “but we got a bad break, and we have to make the stop.”
Heyward was referring to Smith-Schuster’s fumble on the second play. Hodges threw a 10-yard completion to Smith-Schuster at the Steelers 45, but cornerback Marlon Humphrey punched the ball out and recovered at the 34. The play was reviewed by replay officials but was upheld.
“Just protect the ball and squeeze it hard,” Smith-Schuster said.
It was reminiscent of Smith-Schuster’s fumble in the final minute of the Steelers’ 31-28 loss at New Orleans last season, a defeat that knocked them out of first place and ultimately cost them a playoff berth.
“I feel terrible,” Smith-Schuster said. “Literally the worst feeling ever.”
All that was left was for Jackson to position Tucker, the most accurate kicker in the NFL history, for the winning field goal. It left the Steelers on the losing end of another close game that has defined this rivalry. Of the past 27 meetings, 20 have been decided by one score, with 14 coming down to three points or less.
“We’re not far,” safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “One-and-four doesn’t reflect where this team is at. I think we’re a really good team, a really solid team. We’re just going to keep getting better week to week.”