NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It was as subtle as a punch in the mouth. Just as effective, too.
For anyone wondering what the Steelers' offensive plan was going to be for this Monday night game against the Tennessee Titans, it wasn't long into the telecast before the answer was revealed. And for anyone who tuned in late, well, they ended it the way they started it.
Running the football successfully when the opponent knows you're going to run the football is a proven winning formula even in today's pass-happy NFL, and the Steelers' ability to follow that formula is the only reason they wake up today with a 7-4 record in an ultra-competitive AFC North Division where the difference between the penthouse and the outhouse is .050 percentage points.
Le'Veon Bell carried the pig the first seven times the Steelers snapped the football, and then he closed out the game with six more carries before turning things over to Ben Roethlisberger and the kneel-down unit. In between, Bell joined John Henry Johnson, Frenchy Fuqua and Willie Parker as Steelers who have reached the 200-yard rushing plateau in a regular season NFL game, and it's not difficult to make the argument that every one of Bell's yards was necessary to secure what ended up being a 27-24 victory over these surprisingly plucky Titans.
It was just a fortnight ago when it was Ben Roethlisberger's right arm serving as the crankshaft for the 2014 Steelers offense, and after he set an NFL record with 12 touchdown passes over a two-game span it seemed as though this quaint notion of running the football had been relegated to relic status. But there is a time and a place for everything, even in the NFL, and a frigid Monday night in Nashville was the time for the Steelers running attack.
It seemed to be a viable strategy during the preparation stage of the game because the Titans hadn't been very good at stopping it, and then as the evening unfolded the Steelers' ability to run the football went from viable strategy to saving the day.
The 2014 Steelers have been a schizophrenic bunch throughout this regular season, at times seeming to have a solid if unspectacular defense, at other times being a high-octane passing team, and still other times being a hapless group determined to sabotage itself. What they showed on Monday night was some combination of porous defense and leaky pass protection.
Their running attack – specifically Bell doing the carrying and a group made up of linemen Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, and Kelvin Beachum, plus tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, and fullback Will Johnson doing the blocking – gave them everything they needed.
It gave them a way to keep their defense off the field and prevent Titans rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger from shredding it like pulled pork. Mettenberger threw a pick-six to William Gay on his first attempt of the night, and from that moment he completed 15-of-23 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and no more interceptions. As it was, pick-six and all, Mettenberger's passer rating was 110.2, by far the professional highlight for this sixth-round pick from LSU.
The running game also gave them a way to protect Roethlisberger, because the Steelers weren't doing a very good job of it on pass plays. Five sacks tied their season high, and beyond that Roethlisberger was taking too many hard hits. Just too many. And while he was back there fighting to survive, Roethlisberger seemed to have only Antonio Brown and Heath Miller as consistently reliable options.
"The last two drives of the game, they controlled the clock and they controlled the line of scrimmage," said Titans safety George Wilson, who finished with eight tackles as a result of that control. "When we put them in passing situations, we were able to get pressure on him, and force Ben to go through his route progressions, got some sacks and some incompletions to get off the field after third down. But they tried to run the ball and control the clock, and kept the chains moving. And they kept on bleeding us. A few yards here, and a few yards there, ended up running the clock out on us."
All due respect to Wilson's account, it was a lot more than a few yards here and a few yards there. Le'Veon Bell already was looking at a 150-yard game when he help bring the Steelers back from 24-13 with a 5-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and then he added 20 yards on three carries in the drive culminating in a 12-yard pass to Brown that gave the Steelers a 27-24 lead their defense seemed to have little chance to protect.
There was 9:07 on the clock when Brown began his touchdown dance, and on the Titans ensuing possession the Steelers pressure got to Mettenberger on consecutive plays to force incompletions that led to a punt. After the fair catch by Brown at the Pittsburgh 19-yard line, the Steelers offense had 6:58 on the clock to consume. Bell and his blockers ate it all.
On the first play, Bell gained 6 yards, and after Roethlisberger converted a third-and-4 with a perfect throw to Markus Wheaton, it was Bell for 10, then 10 more, then 8, then 3, then 8, then 5. Ballgame.
The Steelers could have ended Week 11 as one of 10 teams in the AFC with six or more victories, but by defeating the Titans they instead are one of four teams with seven or more victories.
And so they will hit Thanksgiving in playoff contention, which is a good thing to be at this stage of a season. They also hit Thanksgiving with a physical running attack, which is a good thing to have at this stage of a season.