The 28th-ranked red-zone offense in the NFL looked the part for the first three quarters Sunday at Heinz Field. There was a drop in the end zone by Heath Miller and three failed attempts to score from inside the 1, including a play in which Ben Roethlisberger failed to get the ball to a wide-open David Paulson in the back of the end zone.
But just when it seemed like the Steelers were following their season-long trend of failing miserably in the red zone, they broke through in the fourth quarter with a red-zone touchdown that provided the go-ahead score in their 37-27 victory against the Detroit Lions.
The first came on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Will Johnson on second-and-goal. It was Johnson's second career touchdown.
"It felt great," said Johnson, whose first career touchdown reception came last season against the Redskins. "It's always great to hear your number dialed up. I'm the first read on that. I get a little excited when I hear it called in the huddle."
Johnson did not play one snap on offense in the first half. He saw his first snaps of the game in the third quarter when the Steelers had those three chances inside the 1 and had to settle for a Shaun Suisham field goal.
Johnson's role has been reduced this season as the Steelers have used their tight ends more than Johnson. But for Johnson, who played just 24 snaps the previous two games, it was gratifying to come through for his team in a crucial situation.
"My main job is to block," Johnson said. "Catches are just rewards. I'm satisfied with a win. I'm never complaining about playing time or anything. At the end of the day, I'm just happy to be here. If my playing time comes, it comes. But when I get in there, I just have to make the most of the opportunity."
The Steelers finished 1 for 4 in the red zone and they know they must improve that percentage to remain competitive the rest of the season.
"We had some opportunities there," said Miller, who dropped his fifth pass of the season and his second in the end zone. "The play to me I didn't make, and we had the first-and-goal. That's two field goals. That's eight more points we could have had on the board. But we made the plays at the end. Hats off to everyone in here and sticking together, keeping the fight. It worked out for us."
Roethlisberger took the blame for missing Paulson.
"I have to make the throw," Roethlisberger said. "Heath is our first read and he was doubled. I couldn't see if there were any defenders on the inside. My safe throw was high and away where only he can make it. I put it too high for him. I think he slipped a little. That's on me. I have to make that play."
The other three touchdowns the Steelers scored were big plays on touchdown receptions of 34, 57 and 20 yards.
Another Big Ben comeback
Roethlisberger won for the 32nd time when the Steelers were tied or trailed in the fourth quarter. It was the second time this season Roethlisberger led the team to a winning drive in the fourth quarter. He also did it against the Ravens last month.
"I came here to play with him," said receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught a 20-yarder with 2:29 left for the final score. "I think he has a lot of respect from around the league. He's a top-flight quarterback. People are going to have to respect it sooner or later. He doesn't get all the attention like the other guys get. But the amount of passing yards and the amount of touchdowns over the years, in a cold-weather city, it speaks volumes for what type of quarterback he is. I feel like I'm in one of those Terrell Owens moments. 'That's my quarterback.' He's just a blast to play with."
Record for Cotchery
Cotchery's touchdown was his career-best seventh of the season. His previous season high was six in 2006 when he played for the New York Jets. It was Cotchery's fifth touchdown in the past three games. He had never caught touchdowns in three consecutive games.
Roethlisberger and Cotchery have developed a nice rapport in their third season together.
"He communicates so well," Cotchery said. "The things he wants, I just try to do them exactly the way he wants it so I can be in the right spot for him. Some trust has been built there. I just try to tell the young guys to do the same. Whenever the quarterback asks you to do something, you have to do it exactly the way he wants you to do it so some trust can be built. We're just hitting it right now. Hopefully we can keep it going."
On his touchdown reception against the Lions, Cotchery faked like he was going to block on a receiver screen and then broke out of the pack into the end zone.
"It's a play to keep teams honest," Cotchery said. "We have a variety of plays when we run screens to receivers. Sometimes we fake it so you never know where we're going to run it. It's a great counter to our screens to our receivers. Everyone in the stadium thought I was running the screen. It popped wide open. It had to be one of the longest moments ever the way the ball was hanging up there. It was a perfect ball. I was able to come down with it and seal the deal."
A Lions gamble early in the fourth might have been the springboard to the Steelers comeback. But to the participants, it was a risk worth taking.
The Lions were leading, 27-23, when they faced a fourth-and-5 from the Steelers 10 and sent in the field-goal team. But as it turned out, it was just a ruse.
The ball was snapped to the holder, punter Sam Martin, who took off on an off-tackle run. He picked up 3 yards but was stopped cold by Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward. Martin fumbled and it was recovered by Ryan Clark at the 3.
"I don't regret anything that happens in the game," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "We're going to do our very best to win the football game."
Kicker David Akers said that while the play failed, it was worth a try.
"At that point in the game, they'd have to go something like 98 yards and you're still up four," he said. "There's a good chance to hold them and they'd have to punt. [Schwartz] always wants to give us a chance to win."
"The situation was there, we thought we would convert," Martin said. "I got hit by a 350-pound man. I don't think I had a first down but regardless, that guy made a great play. When you looked at it initially, there was a big hole."
The Steelers turned the game around by driving 97 yards in 16 plays and never surrendered the lead after that.
"Every play is a risk," Schwartz said. "We're going to try to do our very best to win the game. We didn't make it. You can say whatever you want about me. Don't say I'm scared, because we aren't."
Receivers Calvin Johnson and Antonio Brown made like soccer players and swapped jerseys after game. Brown had seven receptions for 147 yards and two touchdowns and Johnson had six receptions for 179 yards and two touchdowns in a matchup of two of the NFL's top pass-catchers.
"It's a guy I've been looking up to since my first year at Central Michigan," Brown said. "Having a chance to play football in Michigan, you heard a lot about 'Megatron.' It's a great opportunity to have his jersey. I'm excited."
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had a wild day of his own. He finished 19 for 46 for 362 yards and two touchdowns. But he had 327 of those yards in the first half and just 32 in the second when the Lions were shut out.
"We just didn't execute, that's what it boils down to," Stafford said. "We didn't capitalize in the red zone as much as we needed to."
The only stat stranger than Stafford's second-half collapse was that of Johnson, who had no catches in the second half after dominating the first 30 minutes.
"They were doubling him most of the game," Stafford said. "They were top-10 against the pass in the NFL coming into the game. We didn't do enough to put enough points on the board."
* Roethlisberger threw for 367 yards, his fourth game this season with 350 or more. It's the first time the Steelers have reached 350 yards passing four times in the same season (dating to 1970).
* The Steelers are 148-2-1 in the regular season when leading by 11 or more points since the beginning of the 1992 season.
* Brown has 952 receiving yards through 10 games. The most receiving yards through 10 games in franchise history is Buddy Dial's 961 in the first 10 games of the 1963 season.
* Miller surpassed 5,000 yards receiving in his career. He is the sixth player in team history to do so and the second tight end. Elbie Nickel had 5,131 yards from 1947-57.
The Steelers deactivated QB Landry Jones, WR Derek Moye, DB Shamarko Thomas, TE Richard Gordon, LB LaMarr Woodley, OL Ramon Foster and DE Brett Keisel.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. Sports editor Jerry Micco contributed.