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Steelers 17, Rams 12: Steelers stacking wins in Jenga-like fashion

The Steelers didn’t win a game this season until the last day of September. Now, less than halfway through November, they would be the No. 6 seed in the playoffs if the season ended now.

That’s right, after their 17-12 win over the Rams Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers (5-4) would win the three-way tiebreaker with the Colts and Raiders.

Speaking of breaking things, the Mike Tomlin bashers were getting ready to break the Internet when he kept the offense on the field on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers’ 34 with 8:55 left and his team clinging to a 14-12 lead.

Tomlin landed on his feet and the Steelers kept the ball when Trey Edmunds, who hadn’t caught a pass in his career before catching two Sunday, snagged Mason Rudolph‘s 6-yard delivery.

Edmunds, the older brother of Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds, also had an interception to go with his two catches. That came on a fake-punt attempt at the Rams’ 29 in the third quarter.

The Steelers got nothing out of that, but Edmunds’ fourth-down catch from Rudolph did ultimately lead to Chris Boswell‘s 33-yard field goal with 2:46 left, points that the Steelers needed.

It turns out that Tomlin pretty much had to risk national ridicule for the Steelers to pull out this win. They wouldn’t have had those points without that fourth-down conversion and the Rams could have attempted a go-ahead field goal when they reached the Steelers’ 30 with 1:25 left. Think the Steelers would have lucked out in that situation two weeks in a row?

The Steelers have been “stacking” wins, as Tomlin likes to put it. That stack, however, has been Jenga-like.

There was Adam Vinatieri‘s Shank-Heard-‘Round-The-World last week. There was a 14-0 deficit against the then-winless Dolphins the week before. Two weeks before that, the Steelers flirted with blowing a 24-0 lead against the Chargers in Los Angeles.

The stack might be wobbly, but this is what’s called a four-game winning streak. Without Ben Roethlisberger and without James Conner for the last two games, the Steelers don’t need to apologize for these wins. They’ll try to add another Jenga block to the stack Thursday night in Cleveland.

Even the No. 5 seed in the AFC became more realistic for the Steelers thanks to the Browns’ 19-16 win over the visiting Bills (6-3) on Sunday. Don’t expect the Browns to be as helpful on Thursday night in front of the Dawg Pound.

What would help the Steelers is if Conner returns from his shoulder sprain, and it looks like that might happen, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via Pro Football Talk.

Conner’s return wouldn’t come a moment too soon.

The offense accounted for only 10 of the Steelers’ 17 points Sunday and 19 of their 26 last week against the Colts. Without Conner, the Steelers have averaged 2.5 yards per rush over the last two games.

James Washington has been a nice bright spot, even if he did lose a fumble Sunday. Rudolph’s former Oklahoma State teammate set career highs in receptions (six) and receiving yards (90) for the second straight week. He scored the Steelers’ only offensive touchdown when he caught a 3-yard pass from Rudolph to tie the score at 7-7 in the first quarter. He also caught two third-down conversions on the aforementioned field-goal drive that provided the final margin of victory. The first came on third-and-4 from the Steelers’ 46 for a 19-yard gain and the second came on third-and-2 from the Rams’ 27. Those catches helped the Steelers drain eight minutes from the clock before the Rams got the ball back down five with 2:39 left.

Rudolph might have completed more than 22 passes on his 38 attempts if his receivers did a better job of hanging on to the ball. He also could help himself by breaking his habit of taking safeties. He took one for the second straight week Sunday. The Steelers can’t keep handing over two points like that in these games in which field goals loom so large.

The Rams’ offense scored only three of their 12 points Sunday. The other nine points were caused by the Steelers’ foibles on offense. The Rams had a 7-0 lead seven seconds into the game when Maurkice Pouncey‘s snap sailed over Rudolph’s head and Dante Fowler recovered the ball for a 26-yard touchdown.

The Steelers countered with Washington’s touchdown and took a lead that the Rams never could pry away from them when Minkah Fitzpatrick scored a touchdown for the second straight week. The safety acquired from the Dolphins for next year’s first-rounder returned a Jared Goff fumble 43 yards to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead in the second quarter. Fitzpatrick also made the game-clinching interception, his fifth of the season, with 45 seconds left.

During this four-game winning streak, Fitzpatrick is third on the team with 12 points scored. For the second straight week, he provided points that the Steelers wouldn’t have won without. In Week 6, Devin Bush‘s fumble-return touchdown turned out to be necessary in the Steelers’ 24-17 win.

This defense sacked Goff four times Sunday. T.J. Watt had two of them and is fifth in the league with 9.5. Cameron Heyward added a sack and Javon Hargrave‘s sack forced the fumble that Fitzpatrick picked up for the touchdown.

Watt is on pace to surpass James Harrison‘s single-season team record of 16 set in 2008. Fitzpatrick is on pace to grab more interceptions in a single season than any other Steeler in this century.

The Rams were just 1 of 14 on third-down conversions. That’s the Steelers’ best third-down defense in a single game since they denied all eight of the Eagles’ third-down attempts in a 27-3 win at Heinz Field in 2004.

The Steelers defense is doing things it hasn’t done since the days when they went to the Super Bowl just about every other year. The 2019 defense still has to figure out quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson for the Steelers to think about any kind of long playoff run. But it won’t face that challenge until after Christmas.

For now, the Steelers’ job is to keep handling quarterbacks like Goff who have plateaued after early success in their careers.

Also falling into that category is the guy they’ll see Thursday.

The Browns all but printed 2019 playoff tickets after Baker Mayfield‘s rookie year. It’s been fun to laugh at the Browns after their 2-6 start this year, but they lit a match with Sunday’s win. Mayfield has gone two straight games without an interception after throwing at least one in each of his first seven games this season.

Most Steelers fans old enough to drive remember the last time the Steelers went to Cleveland on a Thursday night. They lost to a 1-11 Browns team in 2009. That memory coupled with the Browns’ newfound momentum should make Steelers fans cautious about Thursday.

The Steelers have a chance to win their fifth straight game and get to 6-4 with no trips outside of Pennsylvania or Ohio until Dec. 8 and no games against teams with a winning record until Dec. 15.

That all seems rosy, but without a win Thursday that Jenga stack will collapse and make a big mess.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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