INDIANAPOLIS -- These are the games that can embolden a team. No matter how imperfect the performance or how much the other team aids the cause, the sensation of dramatic playmaking can permeate the locker room for a late-season push.
Twice on Thursday, the Indianapolis Colts lined up at the goal line with four downs at their disposal. Eight downs and no points. The Pittsburgh Steelers made sure of that by holding firm on two fourth-and-1s and letting the offense handle the rest in a 28-7 win at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Suddenly, the Steelers (6-5) are looking like the team everyone expected in the preseason. Two straight road wins are significant -- even against the lowly Browns and maligned Colts.
"That's Steeler defense," said linebacker Lawrence Timmons of the goal-line stops. "That's what we need."
They need physicality, which they showcased in abundance Thursday night.
It takes resolve to let a team drive 19 plays, 89 yards and 11-plus minutes well into the early fourth quarter and still stop it inches from the end zone. From the 1, Scott Tolzien threw a pass that an outstretched Phillip Dorsett couldn't handle with Timmons tight in coverage.
In the earlier stop, late in the second quarter, safeties Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis traded turns thwarting the Colts. Davis tackled a diving Tolzien on third down by the goal line -- he had the run-or-pass option in coverage -- and Mitchell disrupted pass coverage over the middle on fourth down.
This was undoubtedly Mitchell's best game of the year, and he sealed it with an interception on a deep ball that he returned 26 yards. For a defense that has struggled mightily at times this season -- including run-stopping, which is traditionally a strength -- the goal-line stops were timely, even if the Colts committed several drops throughout the game.
The Steelers are starting to feel like themselves again on defense, recovering from what Timmons called "on-and-off performances" in the fall.
Players in the locker room referenced several big hits on Colts playmakers that seemed to wear them down.
"We love hard hits," Davis said. "We love smart, clean hits. When we get the chance to unleash and hit people, we get pumped up."
Ben Roethlisberger capitalized on Mitchell's pick with a 22-yard strike to Antonio Brown for the wide receiver's third touchdown. That capped a back-to-form night for the offense, reminiscent of the 38-point road showing at Washington in Week 1.
The Steelers turned conservative while maintaining their lead and ran the ball on 25 of their first 45 offensive plays. You can get away with that when Roethlisberger is averaging 11 yards per attempt (221 yards on 14 completions and 20 throws). Plus, Brown and Le'Veon Bell finally got help! Ladarius Green had his welcome-to-the-Steelers moment with 67 receiving yards.
Roethlisberger called the offense's performance "efficient." He was also beaming over his offensive line play, which didn't allow a sack and created holes for 148 rushing yards.
"When they play great, we're all great," Roethlisberger said.
Tolzien wasn't a disaster in relief, as he challenged the Steelers downfield. The Steelers' plan was to stop the run and basically dare Tolzien to beat them. He flirted with that plan. But the Steelers are finally getting splash plays when they need them. That's 11 sacks in the past two weeks and two interceptions Thursday.
The youth movement is working -- for now. The trio of top draft picks Artie Burns, Davis and Javon Hargrave sharing the same starting lineup has helped the Steelers win two straight. Hargrave has sacks in back-to-back games.
In an uncertain AFC North, the Steelers have effectively applied December pressure on Baltimore.
"Everyone was down on us saying, 'Oh, we stink,'" Mitchell said about the scene after the Week 10 loss to the Cowboys to drop to 4-5. "You just have to block that noise out and keep going to work. That’s what our leader, coach [Mike] Tomlin, does, and we just follow that mindset."