PITTSBURGH – Brett Keisel saw the ball drop into his 36-year-old hands, and the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end started chugging toward the end zone.
He didn't quite make it, but the sight of the bearded veteran sprinting — more or less — in the open field proved fitting on a night the Steelers briefly turned back the clock to a time when the defense was dominant and the playoffs were a given.
Neither is the case anymore, though Keisel's dash that set up Pittsburgh's third touchdown in a 73-second stretch at the end of the first half of Monday night's 30-23 win over the Houston Texans proved anything remains possible for a team that can't figure out whether it's good or bad or both.
"Old 99," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin joked. "We'll give him the week off and see if he can get his body ready to go on a short week."
It might take that long for the adrenaline to wear off as the Steelers (4-3) made another abrupt turn in a season that remains both promising and problematic.
Booed off the field at the start of the second quarter, Pittsburgh ended the half with a 21-point eruption that buried the Texans under a series of miscues.
Houston (3-4) turned the ball over on consecutive snaps to set up short Pittsburgh touchdowns as the Texans and star defensive end J.J. Watt dropped their third straight.
"You just can't give up 21 points like that," Watt said. "Offense, defense and special teams, you just can't have that happen."
Ben Roethlisberger passed for two touchdowns, and wide receiver Antonio Brown added another on a gadget play during the decisive stretch that moved the Steelers from down 10 to an 11-point lead.
"You stand on the sidelines long enough, you will see explosions such as that," Tomlin said. "It was good to be on the good side of it."
Roethlisberger finished with 265 yards passing. Le'Veon Bell racked up 145 yards of total offense, including a 43-yard catch-and-run with less than 2 minutes to go in the first half that became the spark the Steelers desperately needed.
"That provided the type of emotion the group needed," Tomlin said. "Then we kind of fed off that. The guys really capitalized on it."
The key for the Steelers will be to keep it going. Pittsburgh has alternated wins and losses through the first seven weeks. That's not the way to get back to the postseason after a two-year absence.
"We don't want to be satisfied with the way we played," Bell said. "It was good but there are definitely things we can do better."
Takeaways from a strange night that began with Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons falling ill on the field and ended with the Texans sick after letting a 13-point lead evaporate.
TURNOVER BLITZ: The Steelers came in with just six takeaways through six weeks. They produced three against Houston: Keisel's second career interception, a fumble recovery by Sean Spence that set up a 2-yard touchdown pass from Brown to Lance Moore on a gadget play, and a strip by safety Mike Mitchell in the fourth quarter that thwarted a late surge by the Texans.
FLASHY FOSTER: Arian Foster powered Houston's early surge. He ran for 73 yards in the first quarter. He managed only 29 the rest of the way as the Steelers did a better job tackling. Footing issues didn't help. Several times Foster prepared to cut only to slip on the typically uncertain turf at Heinz Field.
JUICED: Watt provided his usual flash. The MVP contender recovered Roethlisberger's fumble in the first quarter to set up a field goal and later dropped Roethlisberger for his third sack of the year. It marked the third time this season Watt had a sack and recovered a fumble in the same game. No other player in the NFL has more than one.
BRYANT ARRIVES: Steelers rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant wasted little time making an impact in his first NFL start. The 6-foot-4 former Clemson star's first catch in the pros was a 35-yard rainbow from Roethlisberger that jump-started Pittsburgh's comeback. Bryant finished with two receptions for 40 yards.
FRUSTRATED FITZ: Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 32 passes for 262 yards with two scores and an interception. But it's the miserable finish to the first half that will stick with him.
"It was about as bad as it gets and as bad as I've ever seen," Fitzpatrick said. "It was just unacceptable."
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