Resilient Steelers defense faces mounting injury challenges

PITTSBURGH — Only two things make Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Elandon Roberts flinch.

Neither of them are playing in close games.

“One time man, I got in trouble, and they called my mom at school,” Roberts said, a smirk dancing across his face as he held court in front of his locker at Acrisure Stadium after the Steelers’ 23-19 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. “I started flinching. Other than [my mom], I think the only person I’m scared of is my wife. …

“I don’t flinch.”

And it’s a good thing, too, because since Roberts arrived in Pittsburgh in March, the Steelers have been in six one-score games, and a game-saving defensive play on the final drive has decided four of them.

A week ago, it was inside linebacker Kwon Alexander picking off Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis in the end zone to seal the win.

Against the Packers, Alexander was gone by crunch time, his season lost to a torn Achilles. It took interceptions by safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee to secure the four-point victory.

“All right, that was easy,” coach Mike Tomlin said with a laugh to open his postgame news conference. “Just another tight ballgame, man. I’m really just appreciative of the mindset of our group. They just want to make significant plays in the significant moments, and it’s a good thing because these games are always tight.”

Now, Roberts and the Steelers enter a crucial stretch with consecutive road games at AFC North foes Cleveland and Cincinnati without Alexander and fellow starting inside linebacker Cole Holcomb, whose season was lost to a left knee injury suffered in Week 9. From here, the stakes get higher and games get tighter, but because they’ve grown comfortable in these uncomfortable moments, the Steelers believe they’re prepared for the second half of the season.

“If I’m y’all,” Roberts said, gesturing to the reporters in front of him, “and we’re getting in them situations late in the season, y’all shouldn’t even flinch. Y’all should be on Twitter like, ‘Hey, we’ve been here before. They’ve been in this situation.’

“Any team in the league wants to come in here and kneel it out [in victory formation]. Every team. It don’t always happen like that. When you get in these situations, you’re able to see what type of team you are, offensive, defensive and special teams. And we’ve been able to show you guys that, that we’re a tight-knit group.”

It’s why, Roberts said, the Steelers’ defense knew to box out the Packers’ offensive weapons, forcing them to the middle of the field on their final drive when they were out of timeouts. It’s that experience with situational football that will be most beneficial to the Steelers as the season progresses.

“You get those situations in real games, and you happen to execute it,” Roberts said. “And if you don’t, it’s a crucial situation. So you’re able to see what kind of team we are in those situations. And we’ve been in a lot of them.”

The third piece of a revamped inside linebacker corps, Roberts spent the first eight games of the season rotating with Alexander and Holcomb. But with Holcomb and Alexander suffering their season-ending injuries in back-to-back weeks, Roberts is suddenly the last man standing. He has help, though, courtesy of second-year inside linebacker Mark Robinson.



Skirmish breaks out after Steelers’ game-sealing INT

Jordan Love’s pass is intercepted by Damontae Kazee to secure a Steelers win, and both teams scuffle late after Kazee is hit out of bounds.

Before playing 40 snaps against the Packers, Robinson played just four snaps in the first eight games, all coming against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3.

“We got all the confidence in the world in Mark,” Roberts said. “When I looked to my right and saw Mark, I was like, all right. It was nothing. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t flinch, man. Mark went out there, he did his job, he did his job well.”

The rest of the defense didn’t flinch either, even as their 10-point first-half lead evaporated by the fourth quarter as dimes from Jordan Love twice delivered the Packers to the doorstep of the Steelers’ end zone. For the ninth consecutive game, the Steelers were outgained (this time 399 yards to 324), and Love threw for 289 yards with seven completions of at least 20 yards, including a 46-yard pass with a minute to go in the fourth quarter.

“We could be a whole lot better,” Kazee said. “Tired of close games, man. We just need to communicate more out there, man. All of us just confused today, including myself, more people going down, so the next man up. We got to ride the wave, man, every snap.”

But each time, the Steelers atoned for their busted coverages and missed assignments with game-changing plays — even without All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was sidelined for a second consecutive game with a hamstring injury.

First, Neal picked off a ball tipped by Patrick Peterson. Then, with Neal sidelined by an injury he sustained at the end of the interception (prompting the Steelers to put practice squad call-up safety Trent Thornton on the field), Kazee made the game-sealing interception at the 2-yard-line with three seconds left.

“We find a way to win ballgames,” Peterson said. “We find a way to continue leaning on one another, fighting, and at the end we find a way to win.”

It’s exhausting to win this way, to be sure, but the Steelers are growing accustomed to it, for better or worse.

“It ebbs and flows,” Kazee said of managing the emotions of close games. “‘Surfboard shoulders.’ Balance the good and the bad. Look at it like what Coach T used to tell us in camp about [Miami Heat star] Jimmy Butler. I mean, you could go the whole game without [making] a basket until there’s two minutes left, and let’s see how you play at the end of the day. So that’s what we got to do at the end of the fourth quarter.”

Tomlin has a favorite saying for moments like these. “Don’t blink,” he’ll tell his team. “Cut your eyelids off.”

At 6-3 at the midpoint, with all six wins decided by a touchdown or less, the Steelers are playing without eyelids. They’re going to keep playing chicken with adversity, daring it to blink first because, so far, they haven’t.

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