PITTSBURGH (AP) - Hines Ward watched teammate Mike Wallace streaking toward the end zone in the first quarter against Indianapolis on Sunday night and the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver figured the rout was on.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing darts all over Lucas Oil Stadium. Wallace continuing his ascension as one of the game’s most dynamic players. A quick 10 points before the game was 12 minutes old and a proud defense still smarting from a week one loss to Baltimore only too happy to take some of its anger out on aging and ineffective Kerry Collins.
Time for the defending AFC champions to start playing like it, right?
“It looked like it was going to be a blowout,” Ward said, “but then we let their team back in.”
And kept right on doing it all the way until the end.
The Steelers (2-1) escaped with a 23-20 victory thanks to Shaun Suisham’s 38-yard field goal with 4 seconds remaining. They’ll take it, of course, even if their sloppy play over the last three quarters raised more questions than it answered.
“As long as we come out ahead at the end with more points than the other team, I don’t care how it is,” linebacker James Harrison said. “We aren’t looking for style points here.”
Good, because there weren’t many to go around.
While Roethlisberger passed for 364 yards, he also fumbled twice and added an interception. The three turnovers led to 13 points that allowed the Colts to take an unlikely halftime lead.
Even though Roethlisberger spent much of the night under siege by Indianapolis defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis _ who combined for three sacks and two forced fumbles _ the Steelers were forced to rely on their quarterback to make plays thanks to a running game that continues to be stuck in neutral.
Rashard Mendenhall managed just 37 yards on 18 carries despite facing a unit that came into the game near the bottom in the league against the run. Mendenhall found himself on the sideline during Pittsburgh’s game-winning drive, giving way to reserves Mewelde Moore and Isaac Redman.
Coach Mike Tomlin downplayed the substitution as a lack of faith in Mendenhall, who has posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
“We were just in two-minute football,” Tomlin said. “Of course we’ve got a great deal of comfort in what Mewelde is capable of doing and you saw what he’s capable of doing.”
The Steelers would like to see it more often, though it may be difficult if the offensive line remains ineffective getting any push at the line of scrimmage.
Injuries haven’t helped. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert (shoulder), left tackle Jonathan Scott (ankle) and right guard Doug Legursky (wrist) all missed portions of the game after going down.
Gilbert, a rookie, was forced back into action after Scott went out in the fourth quarter and could remain there. Scott walked around Pittsburgh’s practice facility on Monday with a boot over his foot and is questionable at best for Sunday’s game at Houston (2-1).
Legursky could be out too, leaving the Steelers with just five active healthy linemen. Depth could come from the practice squad but it’s also possible the team could reach out to a free agent. Flozell Adams and Max Starks, both released by the team in the preseason as a cost-cutting measures, are still available.
The Steelers are hardly in panic mode after winning their second straight, but the lack of killer instinct and the inability to consistently protect Roethlisberger _ who narrowly missed a major knee injury against Seattle in Week Two _ is a concern.
“We just fight man, keep going,” said center Maurkice Pouncey. “We talked it up at halftime, looked over some stuff in there and went out and adjusted to a couple good things, played good and finished out with a W.”
One that required some late playmaking by Roethlisberger after the defense allowed Indianapolis quarterback Curtis Painter _ who came in with 83 career passing yards _ to drive the length of the field and tie the game at 20 with just over 2 minutes to go.
Yet the line that spent 58 minutes under attack found enough footing to give Roethlisberger time to engineer the game-winning drive.
For a team that knows it will be judged by January and not September, that’s all that matters.
“I like the resiliency of our guys, the way they fought back until the end and take the game-winning field goal down to the end,” Ward said. “It was encouraging.”