When the coin toss came up tails in the Heinz Field grass yesterday, referee Bill Carollo asked the Steelers what was, given the circumstances, a fairly probing question.
"Do you want the ball?"
Apparently there was no immediate response.
"Do you want the ball?" he said again.
"Well," the Steelers' captains must have thought collectively, "not really. We'll probably just give it away anyway."
But for some reason, the Steelers elected to take the ball, and for some reason evidencing a dramatic change of karma, they succeeded in protecting the ball all day, and for mostly that reason, they won for a change.
But it was a lot more complicated than that.
Facing a smoking New Orleans offense that finished just to the civil side of 400 passing yards, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau overcame a deconstructed secondary and put together a pass defense with chewing gum and chicken wire at halftime, a point by which Drew Brees and Reggie Bush and Marques Colston and their able cohorts already had scored three touchdowns for a seven-point lead that felt like 30.
"We had to keep our composure," said cornerback Bryant McFadden, who did not start in lieu of Ike Taylor despite that widely held assumption but played well and extensively. "In the first half, they were putting Colston in the slot a lot and getting him matched up with the linebackers. We made some adjustments."
How many adjustments? Let's just say there are fewer adjustments during a fire drill at the blind school.
Troy Polamalu and Deshea Townsend, half the starting secondary, had been concussed from the game. Colston, the startling rookie out of Hofstra, had seven catches for 128 yards at the half. The only thing that looked like cleverness on the part of the Steelers' defense was that it prevented the deployment of the dreaded punt return unit by simply allowing the Saints to score on the four first-half possessions that did not include a fumble.
"We had to go with [rookie] Anthony Smith when Troy went down, and he was getting exposed to the whole package out there," said Bill Cowher after his club's first win in nearly a month. "Then when Deshea went down we had to go to [rookie free agent] Anthony Madison, but I think this will be invaluable to them. It's great that they got a lot of playing time and, given the circumstances, I liked the look in their eye on the sideline.
"You had a veteran quarterback, spreading us out, dinking and dunking, having some success down the field. They were having to make some checks out there. We were making a lot of adjustments, yelling from the sideline during the course of a drive. It got a little helter skelter out there."
That's right; oh look out, helter skelter.
It got a little unsettling when Brees took New Orleans 72 yards in five plays for a 24-17 lead, but just about everything that happened after that reflected reasonably well on a secondary that was brutally overtaxed, a secondary desperately buttressed by Tyrone Carter, the beleaguered Taylor, McFadden, Madison, Smith, and at times Mike Logan.
"Thank God we got a win," said Madison, the virtually anonymous corner out of Alabama who was on the practice squad until October. "They are two great leaders that we were missing in Troy and Deshea, two guys who come through for us and make clutch plays. I had to step up. McFadden had to come in and play nickel. Anthony Smith had to come in and play dime. But somehow we stuck together. It's a blessing."
Somehow is the key term in this treatise.
Somehow Colston only caught three balls after halftime for only 41 yards, nearly 5 less than per-catch average in the first half. Somehow Brees, who hit 31 of 47 passes for 398 yards, threw only one for a touchdown after throwing three touchdown strikes in each of his previous three starts, the first time that had been done in the history of the Saints' franchise.
That all this happened with Polamalu and Townsend urgently absent, and with the Steelers getting no pressure whatsoever on Brees (particularly from victory-guaranteeing Joey Porter) bordered on the illogical.
"We just had to continue to work hard out there and believe in ourselves," Carter said. "We know what we can do in this room. We're never going to quit."
And neither were the Saints.
Brees moved them from their 19 to the Steelers' 45 with a minute and a half left and the Steelers ahead, 38-31, but after two incompletions faced a third-and-10. Brees drilled Terrance Copper (92 yards on six catches) down the middle for his 10th third-down conversion in 16 attempts, but it was there, at the Steelers' 25, that Carter forced the fumble that finally won the Steelers a game instead of the other eventuality. Ryan Clark pounced on his second recovery of the game with 39 seconds left.
The Steelers thus kept up the florid pace of the 3-6 Cleveland Browns, whom they'll meet Sunday in a quasi-cataclysmic battle for the basement in the AFC North.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.