PITTSBURGH, PA – Mike Tomlin sighed and let out a sentence that, after 13 years on the job, surprised the Pittsburgh Steelers coach for the sincerity with which he meant it. Considering what his team has endured during the first half of a wildly uneven season, it was hard to blame him.
"It's good to be sitting at 4-4," Tomlin said after the Steelers held on to beat the Indianapolis Colts 26-24 on Sunday. "I never thought I'd hear myself say that."
He never thought he'd have to. But that was before franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the year in mid-September with a right elbow injury. Before backup Mason Rudolph was knocked unconscious against Baltimore. Before a 1-4 start that had the Steelers on the brink of irrelevance.
Not so much anymore.
Pittsburgh is very much alive in the muddled AFC after pulling out a third straight victory, one built on another electrifying play by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick — whose 96-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter revived the Steelers after another slow start — and a dash of luck when Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri's go-ahead 43-yard field goal attempt with 1:14 remaining was an ugly, low snap-hook that went nowhere near the uprights in the open end of Heinz Field.
"We know he's a great kicker," Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. "We just tried to get after him, get your hands up, see if we could get another one."
The Steelers had blocked an extra point attempt by Vinatieri in the third quarter. The 47-year-old managed to get the ball over a sea of outstretched hands this time, but the NFL all-time leading scorer's 707th career attempt started left and stayed left. A week after his 55-yarder in the waning seconds against Denver propelled the Colts (5-3) to their third straight victory, Vinatieri could only shrug his shoulders after missing his fifth of the season in 17 attempts, his most in any season since 2012.
"I just missed it," Vinatieri said. "I have to do better than that. Just pulled it to the left."
His mistake dropped the Colts out of first in the AFC South. Indianapolis (5-3) now trails Houston (6-3) by a half-game and may have to go forward without quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who left in the second quarter with a left knee injury and did not return. Veteran Brian Hoyer came on and threw for 168 yards and three scores, but his pick-six to Fitzpatrick helped the Steelers get off the mat as the Colts found themselves on the wrong side of the edge for the first time in a month.
Indianapolis came in having won five of six by a combined 19 points. Each of the Colts' eight games this season has been decided by a touchdown or less.
"I think that's the NFL, really," Hoyer said after his first extended action since Oct. 15, 2017, when he played for San Francisco. "Pretty much every Sunday each game is going to come down to that fourth quarter."
This time, the Steelers survived.
Rudolph threw for 191 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Backup running back Trey Edmunds ran for a career-high 73 yards and Chris Boswell kicked four field goals as the Steelers held on despite mustering just 273 total yards. Yet it was just enough thanks to a defense that forced three turnovers and produced five sacks. The Colts came in having allowed 11 sacks all year.
"It was great to beat that team," Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree said. "A lot of people said we hadn't really beat 'a team' — beaten anybody with a winning record — so we had to go out and show that we had it in us to go out there to compete with a team like that."
FITZPATRICK STRIKES AGAIN
The Steelers paid a hefty price in September when they traded a 2020 first-round pick to Miami for Fitzpatrick. All he's done in six games is a little bit of everything. His interception was his fourth of the season and third in the span of six days. His 96-yard sprint to the end zone tied the game when it appeared the Colts were ready to go up by double digits. It was the second-longest pick six in the regular season in franchise history behind Martin Kottler's 99-yard return against the Chicago Cardinals in 1933, back when the Steelers were known as the Pirates.
Asked what he was thinking when the ball was in his hands, Fitzpatrick said simply, "Score."
Indianapolis punter/holder Rigoberto Sanchez said the laces on Vinatieri's late attempt were facing toward the kicker instead of away. Colts head coach Frank Reich stressed he still has "all the confidence in the world in Adam" and said the snap and hold "wasn't a crystal clean operation."
Sanchez said he and long snapper Luke Rhodes will try to address the issue going forward.
"Luke and I try to be the best we can be for Vinnie," Sanchez said. "The operation has to be clean for him to be able to work. We have to be better."
Colts: Lost C Ryan Kelly in the first quarter with what the team called a "burner."
Steelers: Edmunds and WR Ryan Switzer are both dealing with rib injuries. FB Rosie Nix left after aggravating a knee injury that sidelined him for five games earlier in the year.
Colts: Welcome the Miami Dolphins to Lucas Oil Stadium next Sunday.
Steelers: Finish a rare three-game homestand next Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.