Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Titans

This is what they are, and at this stage of the season it would be foolish to believe that's going to change much because there's too much evidence to the contrary.

This is a team that starts slowly on offense, and the evidence supporting that label can be found in the 46 points the offense has scored in the first halves of the last eight games. Combined. It's a team that is bad defending the run, whether the specific culprit in a particular game is poor tackling, sloppy gap integrity, or getting handled physically on the line of scrimmage, opponents have been running the football with historic levels of success on this defense. Again, the statistics prove the point, with the last seven opponents all rushing for over 100 yards, and with three of those seven going for over 200 yards. In all, those seven teams have combined for 1,267 yards rushing, a 5.5 average per attempt, and 12 touchdowns.

It's also noteworthy to acknowledge who they are and based on the same criteria used to explain what they are, it would be just as foolish to deny this because the evidence is just as compelling and just as time-tested. They are fighters, competitors until the scoreboard clock indicates there is no more competing to be done. They are resilient at times, opportunistic at times, and lucky at the times when their wildly inconsistent nature works in their favor. They are a tough out, as their 6-1-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less would attest. And while their franchise quarterback may only have some magic left in him occasionally and sporadically, he never, ever has any quit or give-up in him.

All of these elements, good and bad, make up a team with too many flaws and shortcomings to be considered a Super Bowl contender, but they also make up a team that's too resilient and competitive to react to their situation by packing it in and passively accepting that reality. And who knows, the NFL playoffs just might have to make a spot for these Pittsburgh Steelers.

Fifteen weeks of the 2021 NFL regular season are in the books for these Steelers, and thanks to a 19-13 win over the AFC South Division-leading Titans on Sunday at Heinz Field, they remain in contention for one of the conference's playoff spots, both mathematically, with a 7-6-1 record, and emotionally, because as of the completion of Sunday's Week 15 schedule, there were nine teams ahead of them in the AFC playoff hunt and they had victories over four of them.

Clearly not a juggernaut, but not a poseur either.

"Exciting victory for us. A very necessary one," said Coach Mike Tomlin in the immediate aftermath. "Didn't get the type of fluid stuff we needed. I think we were 0-fer on possession downs offensively in the first half. The punting component created short fields (for the Titans); they won the battle of field position. But in spite of all those things, I thought the guys continued to fight. The turnovers leveled the playing field in the second half and provided the short fields for us. And that was the catalyst for us to go ahead and secure victory."

As training camp and the preseason had drawn to a close back in August, the Steelers defense was being forecast as a team strength, even as one of the difference-making units in the league. Pressure on the quarterback and the fruits of that pressure were seen as an equalizer for an offense adapting to a new coordinator and operating behind a young, inexperienced, and completely new group of offensive linemen.

But injuries and the attrition those caused, combined with a leaky run defense, took some of the teeth from the unit, and while T.J. Watt has remained one of the league's best and most consistent pass-rushers – when healthy enough to play – the unit as a whole has seen a decrease in both sacks and the takeaways that usually accompany consistent pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.

Even though the Titans became the third team in the last six games to rush for over 200 yards, the Steelers defense took advantage seemingly every time Tennessee chose to do something other than hand the ball to one of its running backs. The Steelers forced five fumbles and recovered three of them to go along with a batted Ryan Tannehill pass that became an interception to post a plus-4 turnover ratio that ended up being the impetus that negated the Derrick Henry-less Titans' 201 yards rushing.

"Splash plays are always an equalizer," said Cam Heyward. "How many turnovers did we get? Four? Man, they came at crucial times and got us back in the game, gave us the lead. We've been saying the dam is going to break (and the takeaways were going to come). You've got to keep practicing. And the practicing and the drills we're doing are starting to pay off."

That the Steelers needed every one of those four takeaways can be seen as an indictment of an offense that was 1-for-3 in the red zone, and in fact converted none of those into touchdowns. During one segment of the fourth quarter, the defense came up with a takeaway on three successive Tennessee possessions but had to settle for a field goal each time. Most frustrating was that two of those field goal "drives" essentially were three-and-outs that didn't even produce a single first down.

"Extremely frustrating," said Ben Roethlisberger, who finished with 148 yards passing to vault Philip Rivers into fifth place on the NFL's all-time passing yardage list. "We felt like there were opportunities and points obviously that we couldn't get that were left out there. We know we can always count on (Chris Boswell), but obviously we want to score more points, especially the last one (when we had) a chance to make a two-score game. It's extremely, extremely frustrating. Give them credit. They're a good defense. Whether we would have a penalty, whether we had a negative rush, whatever it was. We couldn't put the points on the board and … that's very frustrating."

But the defense didn't blink and found a way to keep the Titans from scoring through six second-half offensive possessions that ended: punt, punt, fumble, interception, fumble, turnover on downs at the Steelers 16-yard line. And the not-blinking could be attributed to the defense having close to a full complement of starters, including Joe Haden, who had missed the previous four games with a sprained foot but came back Sunday and made the game-clinching tackle on a fourth-and-6 with 47 seconds left when he stopped wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine just short of the line to gain, and T.J. Watt, whose 1.5 sacks gave him 17.5 for the season and broke James Harrison's single-season franchise record of 16.

"We won this one. We're getting singularly focused for the next one," said Tomlin. "We're not diagnosing big pictures. No need to. We take care of business in-stadium, we don't need to look around. We have three AFC games left, two of which are AFC North games, so all we have to do is focus on the stadiums that we're in. That's the message."

That, and be the best version of what you are. It's too far along in the process for anything else.

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