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Stellar defense and a reliable rushing attack propelled the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 23-17 road victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers improved to 8-5 while remaining on the inside track of the AFC playoff picture. Pittsburgh also ensured its 16th straight non-losing season, the second longest such stretch in the NFL, behind only the Patriots. The Cardinals fell to 3-9-1 after losing a sixth straight game.
The Steelers' defense, No. 1 in the NFL in forcing turnovers entering the game, picked off Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray three times in the second half. Pittsburgh's defense was complemented by quarterback Devlin "Duck" Hodges, the Steelers' undrafted rookie who failed to make Pittsburgh's 53-man roster coming out of the preseason. Hodges, who became the first undrafted rookie in 32 years to win his first three NFL starts, won his second consecutive start and his second of two road starts.
Receiver Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick out of Toledo, had his best game as a pro, scoring two touchdowns that included his third quarter touchdown reception. After the Cardinals cut Pittsburgh's lead to three points late in the fourth quarter, a 16-yard run by Johnson and a clutch catch on a third and 13 play set up Chris Boswell's third field goal of the game. Sacks by Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree on the Cardinals' final possession set the stage for Joe Haden's game-clinching pick with 36 seconds left.
Here's a more in-depth look at how the Steelers won this duel in the desert while inching another step closer towards a playoff berth.
Why the Steelers won
Pittsburgh's defense continues to force turnovers while strengthening its case as the best unit in the NFL. A year after failing to come up with stops and forced turnovers, the Steelers' defense continues to rise to the occasion more often than not. While they did allow a late touchdown pass from Kyler Murray to David Johnson, Pittsburgh's defense made up for it with Haden's game-clinching pick, the second straight game that has essentially ended with a Haden interception. T.J. Watt's end zone pick on fourth and goal earlier in the quarter was yet another example of Pittsburgh's defensive brilliance this season since acquiring safety Minkah Fitzpatrick three weeks into the season.
The Steelers' offense, once again, made just enough plays to complement the play of their defense. While Hodges continues to take care of the football while making timely throws, he has also continues to receive strong contributions by Pittsburgh's young playmakers, led by Johnson, Benny Snell, and James Washington. The Steelers' offensive line, after going through some struggles earlier this season, is playing their best football of the season.
Special teams also played a vital role in the outcome of Sunday's game. Chris Boswell made all three of his field goal attempts, while Johnson recorded the Steelers' first punt return for a touchdown since 2015.
Why the Cardinals lost
While they put forth another good effort, turnovers and their inability to protect Murray were two of the main reasons why the Cardinals saw their losing streak stretch to six games. Arizona also could not establish the run while failing to stop the Steelers' rushing attack. Credit should be given to Murray, who did throw two touchdown passes to keep the Cardinals in the game. Arizona's defense also deserves credit for coming up with a big forced fumble of Snell that set up the Cardinals' first points. Yes, the Cardinals made some plays that nearly allowed them to pull off the upset, but their self-inflicted wounds let to yet another one-possession loss.
After taking an early 10-0 lead, the Steelers were in jeopardy of giving up their lead after Murray and Arizona's offense drove to Pittsburgh's 26-yard-line midway through the third quarter. That was until Haden came up with his first pick of Murray that helped set up Hodges' two-yard touchdown pass to Johnson to put the Steelers back up by 10 points.
Play of the game
After scoring on their opening drive, the Steelers stretched their lead to ten points on Johnson's punt return for a score. Johnson, the 2018 Mid-American Conference Special Teams Player of the Year, also led the Steelers with six catches for 60 yards.
"He's just a quality, low-maintenance, high production, veteran player. And Steve (Nelson) as well. Obviously, Joe [Haden] made the splash today, so he deserves the recognition, but I can't say enough about both of those low maintenance, high-production veteran corners that provide a nice, high floor for us in terms of performance." -- Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on the play of cornerbacks Haden and Steven Nelson, who was acquired by the Steelers via free agency this past offseason. Nelson and Haden are two of the main reasons why Pittsburgh's defense entered Sunday's ranked seventh in the league in passing yards allowed.
The Steelers will host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday Night Football. The game will have major playoff implications, as the Bills and Steelers would be the fifth and sixth seeds if the AFC playoffs started today, respectively. The game may very well determine which team ends up as the higher wild card seed when the postseason begins one month from now.
The Cardinals will host the Browns (who improved to 6-7 on Sunday with a home win over the Bengals) in their regular season home finale. Arizona will finish the year with road games against divisional foes Seattle and Los Angeles.
Re-live the action from today's game by taking a look at our updates, highlights and analysis from Pittsburgh's win in Arizona.