Despite losing starting rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett to a third-quarter head injury, Pittsburgh held on behind backup Mitch Trubisky for a 20-18 win over Tom Brady and Tampa Bay Sunday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium, snapping its four-game losing skid in the process.
The banged-up, underdog Steelers (2-4) got contributions from up and down the roster, with Trubisky leading an important second-half touchdown drive and then completing a pair of crucial third-down throws to Chase Claypool in the closing minutes to secure the much-needed victory.
“Hopefully we learn and grow in the right ways through this success and this experience, because that’s what the journey is about,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin after the win.
The Buccaneers (3-3) had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion with 4:38 to play after cutting it to 20-18 an 11-yard Brady pass to Leonard Fournette. Pittsburgh’s Devin Bush saved the day, however, knocking away the ensuing two-point attempt intended for Chris Godwin.
Making his first career home start, Pickett took a big hit on his first pass attempt of the second half, and was replaced by Trubisky for the remainder of the contest.
Trubisky, who started the first four games of the season, came in and threw for 144 yards (on 9-of-12 passing) and a 6-yard touchdown toss to Claypool with 9:55 remaining — set up by a 45-yard strike to rookie tight end Conner Heyward — to make it a 20-12 ball game.
“I was ready to go,” said Trubisky, who hadn’t seen any game action since the first half of Week 4 against the Jets, “and in those situations, you’ve just got to be ready when your number’s called. I just wanted to come in and help the team win any way I could, so I just tried to come in and do my role and lead the guys, everybody stuck together, and they had my back when I came in as well.”
When Pittsburgh got the ball back with just over four minutes left, Najee Harris started the drive with a nice 8-yard carry, but center Mason Cole’s ensuing snap was low and the ball was loose on the turf, but Trubisky was able to get a mitt on it to avoid a late-game disaster.
Then, facing a critical third-and-16 from the Steelers’ 19-yard line, Trubisky delivered a bullet to Claypool for 17 yards to keep the chains moving. A couple of plays later, on third-and-11 from the Pittsburgh 36, Trubisky again connected with Claypool on a diving, 26-yard grab along the sideline into Buccaneers territory just before the two-minute warning.
It was Trubisky himself who then sealed the deal with a 9-yard carry followed by a game-clinching first down for 3 more yards on a QB sneak before lining up in victory formation.
“We had it when we needed to today, and a lot of the credit goes to the O-line,” said Trubisky. “I think on those third-and-longs, they were giving me a bunch of time to see the field.”
Pickett’s status for next week’s game at Miami is unknown.
After the Bucs went three-and-out on the game’s opening drive, Pickett engineered an 11-play, 66-yard march that resulted in his first career touchdown pass — a 6-yard toss in the flat to Najee Harris — that electrified the Acrisure Stadium crowd and gave the Steelers an early 7-0 lead with 7:38 left in the opening quarter.
But across its four other first-half drives, Pittsburgh managed just 38 total yards and a 55-yard Chris Boswell field goal, going three-and-out on the three other possessions (two in the last 2:42).
Still, the Steelers held a 10-9 edge at halftime, and got the ball out of the halftime break. Steven Sims took the second-half kickoff and hustled 89 yards to the Tampa 12-yard line, but Pittsburgh’s offense only picked up five yards on three plays and had to settle for a 25-yard Boswell field goal to make it 13-9 early in the third quarter.
Pittsburgh’s depleted secondary again kept Brady and the Tampa offense out of the end zone after the Bucs advanced to the Steelers’ 12, as Ryan Succop’s fourth field goal of the day trimmed the lead to 13-12 midway through the third.
“I can’t say enough about that secondary group that we had out there today,” Tomlin said, referencing injuries that kept three of his starting DBs out of the contest. “Man, it was a great opportunity for a lot of those guys — first opportunity in some instances, redemption in some instances, guys getting an opportunity to get back in the fold, guys that hadn’t been a part of us, like Josh Jackson being one — just can’t say enough about what they were able to do collectively. It’s a challenge when you play Tom Brady.
“I just thought they did a really good job of letting our disguises work for us. We didn’t have a big menu, because we can’t have a big menu when we’ve got some young guys and inexperienced guys playing. So whatever we had, we had to dress it up, and I thought they did a really good job dressing it up, and fighting the fight down-in and down-out.”
Brady was 25-for-40 for 243 yards and a score on the afternoon, as he was sacked twice by the Pittsburgh defense.
Pickett, who completed 11 of his 18 attempts for 67 yards, took a shot from Buccaneers star linebacker Devin White on the very next play from scrimmage, and went to the locker room for evaluation as Trubisky took over under center with 7:02 left in the third. Pickett’s head was slammed against the turf on the play — which would have been a 27-yard completion to Diontae Johnson if not for a Kevin Dotson holding penalty — and he did not return to the field.
Tampa Bay outgained Pittsburgh, 304-270, but went just 1-for-4 on the day in red-zone situations. Claypool had a game-high 96 yards on seven receptions, none more important — or as impressive — as his final two. Harris led the Steelers with 42 rushing yards on 14 carries.
Still, Tomlin is not satisfied, and says the team must continue to keep “working our way back to respectability,” as he puts it.
“We’re appreciative of the [win], but we still understand exactly where we are, and we ain’t running away from it — we’re going to continue to run to it and get better,” said the coach, “and prepare for our next opportunity.”
The Steelers will look to make it two in a row at 8:20 Sunday night (NBC) against the Dolphins, who are expected to have starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa back from a concussion.
Tomlin officially announced after the game that Pickett is in the concussion protocol, adding that CB James Pierre suffered a “stinger” injury, while LB Myles Jack (ankle) and DT Larry Ogunjobi (back) were both able to return to the game and should be fine heading into next week’s practice.