PITTSBURGH – Mitch Trubisky stood on the Acrisure Stadium sideline two weeks ago with a baseball cap on, his future uncertain and his chance at proving he's a capable NFL starting quarterback all but gone.
He didn’t complain. Or throw a tantrum. Or give up his captaincy for that matter, an honorarium that requires him to lead, something Trubisky kept doing even while helping rookie Kenny Pickett prepare to be the face of the Pittsburgh Steelers for years to come.
While Pickett remains very much the face of the future, for one remarkable quarter on Sunday, Trubisky seized the present and offered a glimpse of the player he believes he can still be while helping orchestrate a stunning 20-18 victory over Tom Brady and the suddenly adrift Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Mitch was put in a tough spot and he never wavered,” said Pittsburgh wide receiver Chase Claypool, whose 6-yard touchdown reception with 9:59 remaining provided the winning points. “Love that guy.”
Pittsburgh (2-4) snapped a four-game losing streak behind 144 yards passing from Trubisky — who filled in after Pickett went into the concussion protocol late in the third quarter — and a largely anonymous defense that somehow found a way to beat Brady, a task far more star-studded versions of the Steelers have failed to do through the years.
“We ain't back yet," defensive end Cam Heyward said after Pittsburgh toppled Brady for just the fourth time in 16 tries. “We've still got work to do.”
Maybe, but Pittsburgh avoided its worst start in 34 years by keeping Brady in check for long stretches. The 45-year-old struggled to have his way with a Steelers secondary missing four of its top five players, including star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Brady completed 25 of 40 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown but also saw drives bog down consistently in the red zone. Four times Tampa Bay drove inside the Pittsburgh 20. Three times the drive ended with Ryan Succop kicking a field goal instead of an extra-point attempt.
“We didn’t earn the win,” Brady said after his team lost for the third time in four weeks. “It’s a game of earning it and it’s a game of playing well and performing well and we’re just not doing a good job of that. I don’t think we’ve done it for six weeks. I think we’re all playing less than what we’re capable of."
The seven-time Super Bowl champion let his teammates know it. At one point cameras caught Brady excoriating an offensive line that let the Steelers — who had barely produced much of a pass rush since T.J. Watt went down with a left pectoral injury in the season opener — make Brady far more uncomfortable than he's used to.
“It’s all of us,” Brady said. “It’s our whole offense. ... Obviously there’s no position that’s performing at an elite level right now.”
Then again, neither were the Steelers, who were outclassed in every way imaginable during the club's worst loss since 1989. Head coach Mike Tomlin, faced with the prospect of his first losing season in 16 years on the job, ordered his players to dig in.
They responded by producing one of the most improbable regular-season wins of his long tenure as 10-point underdogs at home. Linebacker Devin Bush, a former first-round pick whose erratic play led the team not to pick up his fifth-year option, knocked away a 2-point conversion attempt with 4:38 remaining after Brady's touchdown pass to Leonard Fournette cut Pittsburgh's lead to two.
Trubisky did the rest, connecting with Claypool for a 26-yard gain down the sideline, then running 9 yards on an option play as the Steelers simultaneously bled the clock and stop the bleeding — at least momentarily — on a season that was on the verge of spinning out of control.
“I went in there, really tried to play free, tried to stay aggressive,” Trubisky said. “If I looked relaxed, I mean I felt relaxed. It felt good. ... I would love to duplicate what we did.”
Pickett's first NFL start at the same stadium where he starred at the University of Pittsburgh ended early after he was knocked to the ground by Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White in the third quarter shortly after throwing an incomplete pass.
The 20th overall pick in the draft lay on the turf for several seconds before slowly picking himself up as officials motioned for Pittsburgh's training staff to check on him. Pickett then sat down briefly while being tended to before going into the protocol. He completed 11 of 18 passes for 67 yards and his first touchdown pass, a 6-yard flip to Najee Harris in the first quarter.
Tampa Bay: Tight end Cameron Brate left on a stretcher late in the third quarter after getting tackled by Pittsburgh linebacker Myles Jack following a 6-yard catch. Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles said Brate is dealing with a neck injury.
Buccaneers: Travel to NFC South rival Carolina next week. Tampa Bay is 4-0 against the Panthers since Brady arrived in 2020.
Steelers: Visit Miami for the first time since 2016 next Sunday night.
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL