The scenario was frighteningly familiar to Steelers fans: A dominant first half that resulted in too few points followed by a mediocre second half that gave an inferior opponent a chance at victory.
That’s exactly the way the Steelers visit to Buffalo was playing out on Sunday afternoon.
The one difference between last year, when the Steelers kept stubbing their proverbial toes over NFL teams left for dead, and this season was the presence of Troy Polamalu in the defensive backfield. The soft-talking, shampoo-pitching safety did everything he could to keep Pittsburgh from losing to a less-than-imposing Buffalo team.
It worked, as the Steelers eked out a 19-16 overtime victory.
Despite trailing 16-13 with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Bills had seized the momentum. Facing a second-and-7 play from the Steelers 12-yard line, Buffalo was poised to take the lead or – at the very least – tie the game with little time left.
In a preview of things to come, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass bounced off the hands of receiver Stevie Johnson. It popped into the air, and Johnson had another shot at it at the 1-yard line. Before he got there, Polamalu came out of nowhere, laid out and made the interception.
It was a play that few other safeties – if any – make, but it’s become routine for Polamalu.
“Man, he made significant plays and timely plays,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
“That’s what we’ve come to expect from him. For a guy that didn’t practice much during the week, he’s always ready to deliver for his teammates. And his teammates appreciate it and understand it.”
Fitzpatrick, like most opposing quarterbacks, could do little but marvel at Polamalu’s ability.
“It was a bang-bang play,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was tough. Troy made a great play to get over there and get his hands on the ball. I thought he did a good job all day, especially at the end of the game. Troy really showed up and made some big plays for them.”
It didn’t take long for the next one.
The Steelers punted the ball back to Buffalo, which took over at its 46-yard line with 46 seconds remaining.
On first down, Fitzpatrick went back to Johnson. This time Polamalu, who was limited to five games last season by a knee injury, lowered a shoulder into Johnson. The physical, but clearly legal, hit broke up the pass.
On the next play, Fitzpatrick found tight end David Nelson, who had beaten Lawrence Timmons over the middle. Polamalu came in to help out on the play and yanked the ball loose.
A replay revealed that Nelson had made the catch and gone to the turf before Polamalu separated the ball from him, but it was just another example of how he can single-handedly change a game.
“He is all over the place,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think he is one of the best defenders in the league for a reason. He just flies around and he has a great football sense in terms of reading plays, relying on his instincts and reacting to what he sees.”
The Bills still could have won the game if Johnson had held onto what would have been a game-ending touchdown pass in overtime, but without Polamalu’s efforts, it might not have gotten to that point.
It was the type of game that the Steelers would have lost last season, and that has Tomlin’s team confident despite the close call.
“You feel good, because we got out of here with the win, considering the circumstances with overcoming all the penalties that we had to,” wide receiver Hines Ward said.
“We’re starting to make strides in the right direction. We’re not playing good football, our best football, but I think what we had to overcome and go through today we can learn from it. I like the direction this team is headed especially in the month of December.”
With a huge game at Baltimore on Sunday and – barring another late-season collapse – a drive toward the playoffs looming, it was a game the Steelers had to win.
“I think winning a game like this is what you have to do to make the playoffs sometimes,” safety Ryan Clark said. “It’s not always going to be pretty. You’re not going to dominate every team. Teams are going to fight.
“It’s the NFL. In order to get to the playoffs, in order to stack enough wins to get to the tournament, you have to come out on top, and we were able to.”
Eric Knopsnyder is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat.