PITTSBURGH -- Coach Mike Tomlin promised "Redemption Sunday."
Instead, he got the Gronk hurdle.
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden's leaping interception over New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the fourth quarter was the signature play of the year for a Pittsburgh defense that finally exorcised the Patriots demon.
The red zone jump with 7:43 left in the contest helped break a three-game losing streak, snap a four-game stretch without an interception and seal the franchise's first win over New England in six tries, 17-10.
“We call him Jumpman for a reason,” said corner Mike Hilton of Haden.
Then in the final seconds, with the Patriots facing fourth-and-15 at the 21, the Steelers batted down Tom Brady's pass over the middle and Heinz Field erupted.
The Steelers kept a half-game lead in the AFC North and offered a reminder that they can cause havoc in the playoffs if they secure a bid.
During the week, Haden estimated the Steelers had dropped 10 interceptions this season and had to do something. Linebacker T.J. Watt said the defense had to "get some damn turnovers." This was a group that was tired of its three-game losing streak -- and exhausted from Brady torching the Steelers for 23 touchdowns over his previous eight games against them (seven of which were New England wins).
But when Brady moved to his right while sensing pressure on second-and-16, he lobbed what appeared to be a throwaway. Haden outleaped everyone, stopping the Patriots' momentum in scoring range.
Haden said he took Antonio Brown's advice on keeping the feet in bounds -- make your legs go numb.
“I didn’t know who was there,” said Haden about Gronkowski in his area. “I just saw the ball and said I’m about to high-point it. I felt somebody hit me in the ribs, so I just tried to get my feet down.”
The Steelers' offense did the rest, with a surprising star turn from rookie running back Jaylen Samuels, who finished with 142 rushing yards on 19 carries. Ben Roethlisberger converted a key third down with a deft scramble to his right, finding Samuels on a lob down the sideline.
Rookie receiver James Washington had his brightest moment with a team-high receiving yards, and eight different Steelers caught a pass.
“Plays were made today when they needed to be made,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s the time of year. We needed to win this football game against a really good football team.”
Against the Patriots, as the Steelers know too well, winning plays are paramount. And the Steelers had a few goofs, including the blown coverage on Chris Hogan's 63-yard touchdown that was so wide open that Next Gen Stats had to make a chart about it. Getting zero points out of a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line makes it difficult to beat New England, but the Steelers did just that in the third quarter.
Not releasing place-kicker Chris Boswell, who sliced a 32-yarder like dad on a municipal par-3 to end that drive, seemed like a losing play. But Boswell responded with a 48-yard field goal with 2:41 left to give Pittsburgh a 17-10 lead.
Credit a previously shaky defense for holding New England to 1-of-7 on third down through three quarters, resulting in just 10 New England points. This might have been Pittsburgh's best performance on defense in quite some time.
Steelers killer Gronkowski was a nonfactor for most of the day, Julian Edelman was pretty quiet and though the Patriots ignited the running game, the Steelers managed the red zone well.
“We’ve just got to know we can do it and believe in ourselves and just keep going,” said T.J. Watt, who had one sack on Brady. “We’re just getting started here.”
And the Steelers overcame two turnovers with steady offense. Pittsburgh held the ball for nearly 20 minutes in the first half, and Roethlisberger (22-of-34, 235 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) was potent in the first half, throwing touchdowns to Vance McDonald and Brown.
The Steelers were punishing on the ground, with 158 yards on 25 carries, and they ran nearly five minutes off the clock on a fourth-quarter drive.
Now, the Steelers faithful can exhale.
They've wanted this win over the Patriots for years.
But in the bigger picture, Roethlisberger is more satisfied with his team’s response to a three-game losing streak than knocking off New England.
“Decisions had to be made ... Are we gonna step up and play? Are we going to come together as a team?” Roethlisberger said. “Are we going to kind of divide each other? What’s going to happen? Who knows? This was going to be a great challenge for us, at home against a team that’s always one of the best. I thought guys answered the bell.”