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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Twenty minutes after the most persuasive Steelers victory of a season of fast-swelling promise, linebacker Lawrence Timmons brought into the open a football axiom rarely spoken.
"As a defensive player," Timmons said, "you've got to back your coach up at all times."
It was a perfect day for such a reminder, because in the fourth quarter of Sunday's deliciously complicated struggle against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Football Giants, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was so enamored with the way his defense had turned a blind psychological corner that he temporarily lost his mind.
With his team trailing by three points and properly lined up for a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Giants 3, the boss had holder Drew Butler take Greg Warren's long snap and flip it over his head to Shaun Suisham, who started to his right on what was already officially the least promising running play in NFL history.
Giants special teamer Michael Coe tackled Suisham for a 1-yard loss on the first and presumably last carry of the fine kicker's life, and the only thing that should be said about it was that Suisham was not hurt.
"Just my feelings," he chuckled.
But of course, something else was said about it.
"It was a great play, I thought," said Timmons. "If he gets in, it turns the game around."
Uh-huh, and if you lose by three, there wouldn't be enough talk shows, blogs, tweets, yaps, message boards, texts, newspaper columns and skywriters in the world to contain the vitriol headed for Tomlin.
Fortunately for the Steelers, their defense had already turned the game around. In fact, from the moment New York went ahead, 20-10, with 1:32 left in the third quarter, Dick LeBeau's forces flat out suffocated Eli Manning and one of the most accomplished fourth-quarter offenses in the modern NFL.
Excluding its three punts, New York ran only nine plays in the fourth quarter (three three-and-outs), nine plays that netted minus-18 yards. It was precisely that gathering dominance that notarized the mental license for Tomlin's goofy special teams caper.
"I think so," said defensive end Brett Keisel when I posited that notion. "When we came off the next time, [Tomlin] said, 'Way to have my back!'"
Timmons had an 11-yard sack on Manning right before the Sweezy Sweep, but there remained plenty of heavy lifting for a defense still operating without Troy Polamalu and, for brief interludes Sunday, without LaMarr Woodley again as well.
"We knew what we were up against in the fourth quarter," said Woodley. "Everybody knows what they can do in the fourth quarter and I think we answered that."
Keisel and James Harrison dropped Ahmad Bradshaw after only 2 yards as that series started. Manning threw incomplete on second down, then found tight end Martellus Bennett open on third, but Ryan Clark cut him down exactly 1 yard past the scrimmage line.
Less than five minutes later, after Isaac Redman's 1-yard plunge put the Steelers ahead, 24-20, with 4:02 left, Manning brought the Giants out for the final time with 3:55 on the clock and a crowd of more than 80,000 that watches him win games like this on a near-weekly basis at full froth.
But Eli had no miracle in his pocket Sunday; he threw incomplete on first down, incomplete again on second, and Woodley arrived at his rib cage a half-second before he could throw incomplete on third. Manning fumbled and never touched the ball again.
"I think that was just good coverage by our secondary on that play that allowed us enough time to get there," said Woodley. "I forced the fumble but it would have been nice if I'd fallen on it."
There were plenty of things that would have been nice on the day the Steelers won their third consecutive game, like avoiding a season-high 119 yards in penalties, like maybe making New York pay far more dearly for its atrocious punt and kickoff coverage teams, but a win here against Eli in his own living room is hardly a consolation prize.
"I think we just started to rely on ourselves a little more in the fourth quarter," said Ike Taylor, whose interception set up the Steelers' first score. "That was just total team defense and a total team effort."
Manning's passer rating, 41.1, was the fourth miserable day in a row that this defense imposed on the opposition. Robert Griffin III posted a 72.8, Andy Dalton a 56.4 and Matt Hasselbeck a 75. In the three-game winning streak, this defense has forced the opposition into a 10-for-35 third-down posture. The Giants were 2 for 10. The Steelers came into New Jersey with the NFL's best pass defense, allowing 182 yards per game. The Giants got 114.
"We're starting to play together as a team, which is what it takes to beat good teams," said Keisel. "We're starting to get better."
Before anyone dares to invoke the old peaking-too-early thing, you might flash back to that Sweezy Sweep. That was no peak.
First Published November 5, 2012 12:00 am