There have been heroes before, because you don’t get to mid-November with a 7-2 record without individuals or units stepping up and delivering in significant moments. But along with that, there also always seemed to be someone, something, some phase of their game they had to overcome. Offense in the red zone, the defense against the run, special teams giving up too much ground in the war over field position. Whatever.
But not last night. Not against the Tennessee Titans, the AFC South Division leading Tennessee Titans, or at least they were until they left Heinz Field on the painful side of a 40-17 spanking by a Steelers team that showed what it can do when it puts it all together.
Yes, the Steelers put it all together against the Titans, but that doesn’t mean their performance was flawless. It wasn’t. There were mistakes, or lapses, or just incidences of guys getting beat, depending upon how each is viewed. But this time, for the first time this season, whatever issues they had were not issues that repeated themselves throughout the 60 minutes of a particular game, and there also were some dramatic examples of self-correction, redemption even.
Here’s an obvious one. The Titans converted 3-of-4 third down situations in the first quarter, and then stung the Steelers with a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half. Those early third down conversions were a big part of the Titans being able to get out of the first quarter trailing by just 10-7, and the bomb from Marcus Mariota to Rishard Matthews sliced Tennessee’s deficit to 16-14 with 29:49 remaining in a game it had been trailing throughout.
What was just described in the above paragraph is textbook bad pass defense, but it’s also fair to point out that the Steelers defense also had five sacks, four interceptions, nine total hits on the quarterback, and six passes defensed in a game where the Titans ended up converting 3-of-11 on possession downs (27.3 percent) after the first quarter and scoring no more touchdowns following that first play of the second half.
As for the offense, the Steelers received the opening kickoff after the Titans lost the coin toss, and Ben Roethlisberger promptly directed a 75-yard touchdown drive that had him complete 4-of-5 for 71 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown to Antonio Brown. From that point to the end of the first half, Roethlisberger was 6-of-17 for 43 yards to complement a running attack that contributed a paltry 28 yards over the opening 30 minutes. And not surprisingly, the Steelers were 0-for-2 in the red zone during the same time frame as whatever momentum they had established on the opening possession slipped away.
But in the second half, from the kickoff that followed Matthews’ touchdown until he was lifted for Landry Jones in garbage time, Roethlisberger would complete 20-of-23 (87 percent) for 185 yards and three touchdowns, and the Steelers converted on three straight red zone trips to take a 37-17 lead and send many of their fans home to get some sleep before having to get up for work on Friday morning.
When a team’s defense posts five sacks and intercepts four passes, and its offense scores four touchdowns and doesn’t turn the ball over, all the special teams have to do is avoid any disasters. But against the Titans, the Steelers special teams units did much better than that. Chris Boswell was 4-for-4 on field goal attempts, including one from 50 yards out; T.J. Watt blocked a 48-yard field goal attempt; and a 16-yard punt return by Antonio Brown set up a three-play, 51-yard touchdown drive that he himself capped with a one-handed catch in the end zone.
One of the popular storylines in the few days leading up to the game involved the return of long-time Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who now holds the same job with the Titans, and how his new players were going to be hyper-motivated to win one for a universally respected man who often was referred to by his players in Pittsburgh as Coach Dad.
But it was the Steelers defense, now coordinated by Le’Beau’s close friend Keith Butler, that out-LeBeau-ed LeBeau’s Titans defense, and the unit did it without two of its starting defensive backs – cornerback Joe Haden and free safety Mike Mitchell. One of LeBeau’s core beliefs is that pressure on the quarterback is important, and making the quarterback feel pressured when he isn’t is what leads to takeaways.
The five sacks and nine total hits on the quarterback likely accomplished both of those things, and when it ended Mariota had completed 66.7 percent of his passes for over 300 yards with a 75-yard touchdown, but when you add four turnovers to those other statistics it becomes an overall negative for his team.
Coty Sensabaugh stepped into Haden’s spot and had an interception, as did Robert Golden, who stepped into Mitchell’s. Mike Hilton attacked the backfield and dropped into coverage, the way LeBeau liked to deploy Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake back in the early-1990s, and he finished with a tackle for loss and an interception. And Sean Davis, a strong safety with coverage skills, had the fourth interception.
The Steelers’ performance earned them a victory over the Titans, but they had done that often this season already. What was different, what was special about No. 8 was that it was a complete performance.