Who else but Minkah Fitzpatrick?
For the second week in a row, Fitzpatrick knocked away a pass in the end zone to preserve the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ undefeated season.
The Steelers are 8-0 for the first time in franchise history, surpassing the 7-0 mark set by the 1978 team.
“I’m really proud of our football team, 8-0 for the first time in franchise history,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’re humbled and honored to be that group. It’s not without its trials today, obviously. Some of it was created by us. … We’ve got a group that sticks together and a group that’s mentally tough and is able to persevere. I’m thankful for that.
“But obviously we can’t keep having these conversations every week, because one of these weeks, we’re going to be doing it with an L if we’re not careful. But we’re thankful to win today.”
Although the Steelers pulled out the win, the game was far from pretty.
A 14-point favorite, the Steelers trailed by as many as 13, their largest deficit of the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They couldn’t find a rhythm on either side of the ball and faced a 13-0 deficit with four minutes left in the half, continuing the Steelers’ streak of dismal starts.
“Man, we’re just getting hit in the teeth,” Tomlin said of the slow starts. “We’ve got to combat that.”
Hit by Neville Gallimore and DeMarcus Lawrence late in the first half, Ben Roethlisberger‘s afternoon almost ended early. The quarterback tossed four passes after the hit, ending with a touchdown to James Washington for the Steelers’ first score. But he left the field immediately afterward, going to the locker room with 1:10 left in the half to evaluate a left knee. When the Steelers got the ball back on a recovered fumble, Mason Rudolph had to come on for the final drive, one that ended with a franchise-record, 59-yard field goal by Chris Boswell.
“Someone hit me right on the side of the knee,” Roethlisberger said. “Felt like it kind of bent my knee a little bit. Part of the game of football. Guys get hit all the time. Have some discomfort, and so we thought, end of the half, we’ll head in and get it looked at. Doc just wanted me to keep him updated the second half, so I was just keeping it loose and keeping it warm.”
On the other side of the ball, without Tyson Alualu, the Steelers struggled to stop the run. A week after giving up 265 rushing yards to the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers allowed the Cowboys to rack up 144 yards. Even with Ezekiel Elliott slowed by a hamstring injury a week earlier, the Cowboys averaged 4.6 yards per carry behind Elliott and backup Tony Pollard.
The Steelers also were sliced up by Gilbert, the Cowboys’ fourth starting quarterback this season. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 243 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Cowboys stayed ahead of the Steelers with four field goals by Greg Zuerlein.
Facing the league’s worst rushing defense, the Steelers had an opportunity to run all over the Cowboys. Instead, they put up just 46 rushing yards. The performance comes a week after managing just 48 rushing yards against one of the best rushing defenses.
And it’s not just that the Steelers weren’t running well — they weren’t running the ball much at all. Though Roethlisberger attempted 42 passes, the Steelers ran just 18 times for an average of 2.6 yards per carry.
“We were looking at some of their defensive personnel groups, and we found that they didn’t have a lot of defense when we spread them out,” Tomlin said. “So it reduced the amount of things that we would have to see, so we were comfortable working in that space. That’s why we did it.”
The Steelers’ discombobulated and stagnant offense started to find a rhythm at the end of the third quarter and managed to score on the first play of the fourth on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster to pull within four before Boswell missed the extra point.
“We went to that same package that we went to last week, that kind of four-wide and a tight end, and said, ‘Listen, let’s just go to work,’ and the line blocked,” Roethlisberger said. “I can’t say enough about the skill guys, the way that they’re able to do things on the fly and the line blocking.”
But the Steelers appeared to be running out of comeback magic as the special teams gave up a 64-yard kickoff return to Rico Dowdle — the second highlight-reel return for the Cowboys after C.J. Goodwin‘s 73-yarder. With excellent field position, the Cowboys were on the cusp on another score when Fitzpatrick picked off first-time starter Gilbert in the end zone on third-and-goal.
Roethlisberger had a chance to orchestrate his first 99-yard scoring drive after Fitzpatrick’s interception, but the veteran quarterback had to settle for a field goal after his third-down attempt was tipped.
Forcing just the second punt of the evening, the Steelers got the ball back with 4:11 to go.
This time, Roethlisberger’s drive ended with an 8-yard touchdown to tight end Eric Ebron, who hurdled into the end zone to give the Steelers their first lead.
“I didn’t want to let my guys down,” Roethlisberger said. “I think so many times the line and guys are looking at me on the sideline, they’re like, ‘All right, Ben, we believe in you.’ I just don’t want to let them down. I want to give everything I have and fight. I wish that we didn’t have those fourth-quarter comebacks. I wish that I played better early in the games and that we were up and we didn’t have to do it. But that’s the way it is. If we have to have a situation like this where we have to score late or win in the fourth quarter, as long as we win, I’ll take it.”
T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward delivered with a big sack of Gilbert on fourth-and-8, giving the Steelers the ball with 1:37 to go, but the Steelers still had to make one last defensive stand after the offense couldn’t maintain possession. Despite Lamb’s 32-yard, toe-tap grab with 30 seconds remaining and one final play from the 23 with four seconds left, the Cowboys couldn’t pull off the upset.
“Every time we face adversity, we fight,” Ebron said. “Honestly. That’s the only thing I can tell you. I don’t give up. I try to pump so much energy into this team, and I feel like it works. I feel like it all comes together. In the end, I wouldn’t bet against us. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t bet against us.”