Don’t let it fool you. In the playoffs, experience matters.
It’s not a coincidence that Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Alex Smith all won over the weekend despite being the road team. It’s the first time all four road teams have won in a playoff week.
But for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Saturday’s win wouldn’t have been possible without the contribution of a couple of young dudes playing some of their best football.
Ryan Shazier had one of his best games of the season, and given the playoff circumstances surrounding it, you could easily argue it was better than what he did back in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers. The bottom line is that if Shazier doesn’t pry the ball out of Jeremy Hill’s hands with 1:36 left, it is incredibly unlikely the Steelers win that game. Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones would’ve gotten to celebrate. No one wants that.
It’s been a difficult year for Shazier. A great start, an injury that brought it to a screeching halt, and some inconsistent play down the stretch. Just a week ago, he was semi-benched for Vince Williams on run downs. Saturday, he excelled against it and Williams didn’t see the field, two goal line packages aside.
Chris Boswell. Man, what more is there to say. I looked up this stat after my Stats Of The Weird article. Boswell is now the youngest kicker in playoff history to go 4/4 in a game. He’s 24. The Steelers’ kicking game just didn’t seem meant to be this year. No Shaun Suisham. No Garrett Heartly. Woefully ineffective Josh Scobee. The kicking Gods spoke. And Boswell told them to shut up.
As Blair Walsh showed, field goals are never gimmies. To have Boswell be money in the biggest game of his life, with virtually every circumstance going against him, can’t be stated enough. Someone buy that man a nice steak.
Fitzgerald Toussaint went from the dude with the Scrabble-winning name to a true, tough Steelers’ back. Mike Tomlin told us that fans would appreciate his nod to the throwback, blue-collar runner. Boy, was he right. Toussaint got busted up, appearing to bust up his nose and talking to the media afterwards with two band-aids criss-crossed over his face. He stood tall in pass protection. He ran hard. He ran well. We harped on him having more experience than the rag-tag bunch last year, but that was never saying much. He was still a second year player. 25 years old. And he came up huge Saturday.
You could add Jordan Todman here too. His play was excellent and he’s only 25, but he’s also been in the NFL since 2011. A veteran in the league’s eyes.
There’s no debate Bud Dupree crashed into the rookie wall over the last month. And though the box score isn’t gaudy, anyone who watched knew he stepped up his game. His ability to bend the edge and get pressure, stack and shed against the run, his overall energy level, it all improved. The rookie knew how big this game was and he elevated his play accordingly. Big props to him.
Jarvis Jones is the oldest of the young bucks but just turned 26 and playing in just his second playoff game. Another unimpressive season in the sack category, finishing the regular season with just two, Jones’ play flipped on its head Saturday. He beat All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth, swatted the ball out of A.J. McCarron’s hands in one of many game-changing plays. It’s his most memorable play as a Steeler.
And then there was Martavis Bryant. So much made, too much really, over Roethlisberger’s challenge. If you had told fans before the game he would’ve finished with only 29 yards receiving, they’d have been furious.
But what a glorious 29 yards they were. And one of the best 10 yard catches, heck, any catch, you’re ever going to see. It’s been a tough year for Bryant, for a variety of reasons, but with each challenge, he’s responded. And he’s a better player and person for it. Seeing him rise to the occasion is the better indicator of his ability to be a great one than any individual trait he has as a receiver.
Pittsburgh is still going to rely on the play and wisdom of the guys who have been here before: Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Lawrence Timmons. But the play from the mentees is equally as valuable.