Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Two Wills who had been doing a lot of grunt work for the Pittsburgh Steelers thrived in the spotlight Sunday in a character-building 37-27 win over the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field.
Fullback Will Johnson caught the game-winning touchdown pass and safety Will Allen’s interception set up the touchdown that put the game away.
There seemed to be no way the Steelers (4-6) would win this game. They had leads of 14-0 in the first quarter and 17-3 with 10:34 left in the first half, but found themselves down 27-20 at halftime. They had never overcome a deficit of more than three points to win a game this season.
Calvin Johnson made Ike Taylor look every bit of his 33 years with touchdown catches of 79 and 19 yards, and Joique Bell scored on a 2-yard run to put the Lions ahead.
The Steelers defense allowed 379 yards in the first half, putting them on pace to obliterate the franchise-record of 610 they surrendered at New England two weeks ago.
There would be no such infamy Sunday. The Steelers shut out the Lions and held Johnson without a catch in the second half, but that almost wasn’t good enough to win this game.
The Lions lined up for a field goal that would have given them a 30-23 lead with just under 13 minutes left in the game.
Instead, holder Sam Martin tried to get the first down on a fake and Cameron Heyward forced a fumble that Ryan Clark recovered at the 3.
The Steelers covered 96 of the 97 yards they needed for a touchdown, converting a fourth-and-2 at the Detroit 36. But all they had to show for their previous three trips into the red zone were three field goals. Down 27-23 with less than six minutes left, a field goal wouldn’t have done much good, and for the second time, the Steelers appeared to get bogged down at the Lions’ 1.
They were facing third down after two incomplete passes, but Rashean Mathis interfered with Markus Wheaton in the end zone.
During his days in Jacksonville, Mathis intercepted six passes against the Steelers and returned three of them for touchdowns, including one in a playoff game the Jaguars won. But on Sunday, he went from a Pittsburgh sports villain to a dumb criminal, giving the Steelers a new set of downs.
So instead of fourth down, it was second down when Ben Roethlisberger targeted Will Johnson.
Johnson always could be counted on to catch a nice little swing pass for 10 or so yards early in games last season. For some reason, that play has been missing from the Steelers’ playbook this year.
Instead, the Steelers turned to Johnson to solve their red-zone woes Sunday. He caught the 1-yard touchdown pass on a fade route to give the Steelers a 30-27 lead with 4:46 left in the game.
Johnson caught 15 passes last season, but his go-ahead touchdown Sunday was just his fourth reception this season and the second touchdown of his career (both in bumblebee jerseys).
Allen kept the ball out of Calvin Johnson’s hands on the Lions’ ensuing possession, intercepting Matthew Stafford’s pass and returning it 27 yards to the Lions’ 34.
The 31-year-old Allen was a Steeler from 2010 to 2012. He helped keep the defense afloat last season when he started seven games in place of injured Troy Polamalu. The Cowboys signed Allen in the offseason, but cut him on Oct. 8.
Allen was out of work for two days when the Steelers brought him back. On Sunday, he and Jason Worilds shared the team lead with seven tackles each. Allen also forced a fumble in the first half. His first interception as a Steeler set up a touchdown by another Steeler who has emerged from oblivion.
Jerricho Cotchery caught his seventh touchdown pass of the season, a career high, to increase the Steelers’ lead to 37-27 and essentially put the game out of reach with 2:29 left. It was also Cotchery’s 34th reception of the season. He caught 33 passes in 2011 and 2012 combined.
Antonio Brown has caught more passes this season than Cotchery has in his three years as a Steeler. Brown remains on pace to break Hines Ward’s franchise record of 112 receptions in a season. He caught seven passes for 147 yards Sunday and has 74 catches in 2013. His 34- and 47-yard touchdowns gave the Steelers their 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Brown has put his costly fumbles in 2012 behind him and regained his third-down touch of 2011. Three of his catches came on third down Sunday, including a 16-yarder on third-and-9 from the Steelers’ 4 on their game-winning drive.
With this victory over the NFC North-leading Lions (6-4), the Steelers pulled even with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns in the AFC North. All three teams are 4-6 and two-and-a-half games behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (7-4).
The Bengals have a bye next week before going to San Diego in Week 13. The Steelers can be alone in second place, and no more than two games behind the Bengals, if they win at Cleveland next Sunday and at Baltimore on Thanksgiving.
That’s easier said than done. The last time the Steelers won two in a row, Terrelle Pryor ran 93 yards for a touchdown before they knew they were in Oakland.
Let’s not get too excited yet.