PITTSBURGH (AP) — Joe Haden saw the ball floating toward him, Rob Gronkowski bearing down on him, stretched out every inch of his 5-foot-11 frame and hoped for the best.
For once, the first time in a while, the best actually happened for the erratic Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
Haden’s leaping fourth-quarter interception — one in which he outjumped both Gronkowski and New England teammate Julian Edelman then somehow kept both feet inbounds despite getting crunched to the Heinz Field turf — and the ensuing cathartic celebration not only served as a critical turning point in a 17-10 victory , but appeared to restore the swagger to a unit badly in need of some following a three-game losing streak.
“We were just trying to figure out a way to get turnovers,” Haden said. “We’ve been letting the team down a little bit in the fourth quarter. Having a lead and things like that. So we’ve been talking about turnovers. I feel like being able to get that one was big for us.”
The pick was just the fifth by the Steelers in 14 meetings against New England quarterback Tom Brady and their seventh of the season. It was also the kind of momentum-halting stop Pittsburgh was unable to get during its recent slide, games in which the Steelers led after halftime only to have it slip away, something that wasn’t lost on Haden.
“Having that three-game losing streak, we weren’t really stopping anything in the second half of games,” Haden said. “We really talked about that and trying to make it right before the playoffs.”
The postseason is still far from a certainty for Pittsburgh (8-5-1), which holds a half-game lead over Baltimore in the AFC North with two weeks remaining. Yet there were promising signs the defense may have figured something out.
Gronkowski, who had dominated the Steelers throughout his career, was held to just two receptions for 21 yards. And while Brady threw for 279 yards, 63 of them came on a busted coverage by the Steelers on New England’s fourth offensive snap and another 63 came during New England’s last-ditch drive with Pittsburgh in something akin to a prevent defense.
When the Patriots neared the Pittsburgh goal line, the Steelers forced four straight incompletions to earn their first victory over the Patriots since 2011.
In between New England’s first possession and its last, Brady managed just 144 yards through the air and the Patriots mustered a single Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Brady allowed the Steelers mixed up coverages in ways it had not in previous meetings, though that’s hardly atypical.
“I thought they played good,” Brady said. “They made some plays. We certainly had some opportunity out there and I give them credit, because they made important plays when they needed too.”
All the way to the final snap. Brady’s fourth-down heave to the end zone intended for Edelman was knocked down by safety Morgan Burnett, who has endured an uneven first season with the Steelers.
Signed as a free agent in the offseason to help provide veteran leadership to a largely young group, Burnett has spent most of it on the sideline because of various injuries. He certainly appeared to be just fine, however, when he spiked Brady’s 36th and final pass attempt.
“You knew what was going to happen at that point of the game,” Burnett said. “No timeouts. Fourth down. You knew they were going to take a shot toward the goal posts. At that point you are just thinking ‘Get the ball on the ground.’ If you don’t catch it, just get it on the ground so they don’t catch it in the end zone.”
Sounds simple, but it hasn’t been for the Steelers of late. The Los Angeles Chargers roared back from a 16-point halftime deficit at Heinz Field on Dec. 2 thanks in part to Pittsburgh’s inability to make the plays that were there for the taking. Haden and Sean Davis collided while trying to pick off Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the end zone.
Instead, the ball popped into the air and settled into the arms of Los Angeles wide receiver Keenan Allen and the comeback was on.
Two weeks later and with their season possibly on the line, the Steelers didn’t let another opportunity to make a statement get away.
“I think it’s a confidence booster moving forward,” said linebacker T.J. Watt, who recorded Pittsburgh’s lone sack of Brady. “I think we need to build off this performance.”