It’s one of the more well-known Tomlin turns of phrase, a description of the mindset his defense has about not giving any easy yards or easy plays. In the case of Sunday’s heavyweight match with the Tennessee Titans, the end of the game came down to the surging Titans in range for a tying FG and the Steelers gargantuan effort to push them back even a few feet, in an effort to make it a tougher kick. The Titans had a 1st and 10 at the Steelers’ 25 yard line–– about a 42-yard FG from there, and a Stephon Tuitt pressure, a Joe Haden open-field tackle, and a Haden avoiding making pass interference (which is no small feat in the 2020 NFL) later, Stephen Gostowski lined up 3 yards of grass blades further back, and his game-tying kick faded just wide in the last few yards, securing a come-from-ahead Steelers victory––one that made Pittsburgh 6-0 for only the second time in their history.
And said victory also made the Steelers the last unbeaten team in 2020, since the Seattle Seahawks played a game––and see if this sounds familiar––where they got out to a big early lead and looked unstoppable, watched their opponent claw back on the strength of 3 INTs from their superstar QB, saw the opponent miss a crucial FG attempt late… but couldn’t close out the home team, despite having numerous chances to do so. Getting to 6-0 is damn hard, especially in a league era that is hard-wired to prevent any lead from being safe and to keep games close. The Steelers got there in ways that were at times outstanding, sometimes frustrating, juggled by bad luck and iffy penalties… but which all added up to a well-earned and deserved victory. Hey. remember that close games are often won or lost on little plays that don’t look like much but which tip the balance.
The Steelers started off the game like an unstoppable force–– they came out with precision short passing and scored their first opening-drive TD in two years. For all the criticism of the early, scripted play choices in some previous games, the choice to attack the Titans outside the numbers with short passes and some runs with speedy players like Ray Ray McCloud and Anthony McFarland opened things up for the run game and was extremely effective for large swaths of the game.
This opening drive was a methodical, demoralizing, 9 minutes and 18 seconds long, punctuated by an angry Ben Roethlisberger driving a slant pass into Diontae Johnson like he was wielding a nail gun. The Steelers D then shut down Derrick Henry & the Titans offense in a 3 and out that featured a holding penalty, a near strip sack, a run stuff, and a near interception. Pittsburgh then came back with another 13-play, 7 minute TD drive At 14-0, with the Steelers outgaining Tennessee to that point 136 to minus 6 yards, and with the time of possession differential a staggering 16:23 to 1:21, it sure looked like the rout was on.
Narrator: “But the rout was not on.”
To Tennessee’s credit, they are not the Cleveland Browns. They calmly moved the ball down the field––aided by some luck on a double-deflection 3rd down conversion that had at least two chances to be intercepted and then the aforementioned Henry Mondeaux getting drawn offside––and answered the Steelers’ early surge with a 4-yd TD pass to Corey Davis. Kudos to Tannehill for standing in there and making the TD throw immediately after getting blased by Vince “Bad Intentions” Williams.
The Steelers moved the ball on the next drive, but stalled into a Chris Boswell FG after a batted down pass was almost intercepted, a free chance at a deep ball was broken up when a last-second swipe by Darius Butler knocked Johnson’s hand upside down, and the Tennessee coverage stiffened on 2nd and 3rd down. The lead was now 10.
On the ensuing series, Tennessee got pinned deep in their own end because of a terrific special teams kick and coverage. Then the Steelers defense did a great job getting off the field with the Titans still deep in their own end and with time for the Steelers sill remaining in the half. Punter Brett Kern smoked a punt 58 yards to flip the field, but Ray Ray McCloud continued to make his case as one of the league’s best return specialists––and certainly the best one acquired for free––with a 56 yard return to flip it right back.
The Steelers wasted no time, using just 3 well-run plays and finishing with a TD catch and run by Diontae Johnson, where he caught a quick slant in space, and then pivoted so hard that he cast a soul-stealing spell on 2x Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph and took it in untouched for a 24-7 lead, late in the half. Surely now, the rout was on!
Narrator: “Actually, the rout was not quite on.”
Despite the Titans setting up to punt after running off only 31 seconds, a low snap resulted in a desperation heave by their punter. The desperation heave almost turned into a heart attack for the Steelers fans, as the pass went through the hands of not one, but TWO Titans. The pass would have been negated by half the team being illegally downfield but, instead, the Steelers ended up with 14 seconds to stick the dagger from a 1st down at the Tennessee 32. From there, it would have been a 49-yard FG attempt but another untimely presnap penalty from Eric Ebron set the team back 5 yards and perhaps forced Pittsburgh into thinking they had to look for a few yards near the sidelines OR take a shot downfield, since they were out of FG range and had no timeouts remaining. The play call was 4 verticals with Conner staying in to protect, but Ben’s attempt to look off the safety failed, and his thorw––unlike the earlier deep attempt to Johnson––missed inside and was picked off by former B2B Directional Stater Dane Cruishank. That said, you can see here the difference between Dionate Johnson––for all his skills/talent––and an All-Pro like Antonio Brown. Brown likely locates and high points this football for a spectacular TD. Johnson learns a lesson in his process of learning to play with Big Ben. He’s going to put it up for you to make a play, and he believes you can go and get it… you have to learn to make that play.
After the late-half excitement, the Steelers still entered half #2 with a 17 point lead. Back in the days of William Laird “Braveheart” Cowher, a 17-point lead like that would have been already deposited in the bank. But in this era of football and this season in particular, a big lead is no sure thing. There have ben a remarkable number of vanquished or nearly vanquished big leads around the NFL this season, and this one was no exception.
Tennessee had been getting the bounces to go their way all game and, to be fair, they made their luck by playing hard, physical, and determined football. After their opening possession of the second half started with a TJ Watt sack and ended with a Terrell Edmunds near-interception/3-and-out, they had given up 8 out of 9 3rd down conversions, had only converted 2 of 6 themselves, and had only 76 yards of total offense (18 of which came on a double-doink ball). The Steelers got the ball back up 17 and in a game they were both statistically and emotionally dominating.
And the Steelers had that Cowheresque “look in their eye to start the drive, with a well-blocked James Conner run on 1st down to gain 8. But then something the Titans had been doing throughout the game to that point cost them. If you’re familiar with the expression “finishing their checks” from hockey, it accurately describes the Titians tackling. They were finishing tackles and blocking scrums––especially near the sidelines––to the echo of the whistle, or in some cases long after. Vance McDonald got knocked sideways into the bench and on top of Ray Ray McCloud after one scrum, Ben got fully laid out on borderline late hits in the pocket, and an already out of bounds Diontae Johnson got decked by a big hit from Kenny Vaccaro because the official’s whistle was late. On this occasion, Vaccaro again threw down Conner late and into the bench, resulting in a free 15 and a first down at the Titans’ 42. A deep shot to Claypool resulted in another Titans’ penalty and a 1st and 10 at the Titans 15. The knockout blow was coming––PIT knew it and TEN knew it.
A couple of Conner runs got them to a 3rd and 6 at the 12, but the chance to put this game away literally went off their fingers. Because of pressure from Jerrfey Simmons, Ben couldn’t quite step into his 3rd down throw and it missed Ebron missed just inches high and away. Pittsburgh settled for a FG and a 27-7 lead with 25 and half minutes left in the game and a Tennessee offense which had done nothing to that point. Surely, the rout was on!
Narrator: “No, damn it, the rout was not on––– and don’t call me Shirley!”
The Titans next series changed the game. After yet another run stuff, the Steelers LBs got greedy. Looking the shut down the run cost Vince Williams a couple of steps towards the line of scrimmage on play action, and Tannehill delivered the ball just past Vince’s outstretched arm flail and just short of deep safety Minkah Fiutzpatrick interception attempt to an in-stride A.J. Brown, who split the Steelers defense and took it 73 yards to the house. Yes, I know you’re psyched about completely shutting down the run and you’re trying to make takeaways, but you’re up 20 points guys! What happened to bend but don’t break and don’t give up big plays? I mean, literally the only way they can score enough to win in the reamining time is to get some big plays and that play was just a failure on multiple accounts.
Given new life, the Titans defense cranked up the intensity a little, blowing up a screen intended for McFarland and stuffing a Conner run attempt. The Steelers seemed interested in taking time and playing conservatively, so it was no surprise that they opted for an underneath throw to Johnson which didn’t convert. I am not a conservative decision-maker by nature, but I do appreciate ‘chalk’––when the odds favor it, even conservative decisions can be the right choice. But in this case––without even knowing what was going to happen––the situation on the ground was that the Titans felt life for the first time all day and the Steelers should have been prepared to keep attacking until Tennessee’s will was broken or they were out of time. Calling 3 conservative plays when the other team feels momentum building is a good way to add to the fire.
But the Steelers defense diffused things a bit by forcing a punt and the Steelers offense had another chance to rectify the situation. They came out throwing, much like the beginning of the game, and parlayed some short throws and hard running from JuJu into a 1st down at their own 30. And then those Titan bounces and Jayon Brown took over the game.
The Titans line were getting so effectively blocked in pass protection that they had opportunities to get some hands up. With Ben setting and making an on-time throw, Jeffrey Simmons could time the throw and he knocked it up in the air. Matt Fieler either didn’t grasp that the ball was still live in the air or waited for Jayon Brown to catch it before hitting him––it would have been legal for Feiler to just plow over Brown without it being interference––and Brown secured the interception.
The last thing the Steelers really needed in that situation was a turnover but for all criticizing them for going conservative on the previous series (raises hand), they would point you to this outcome. Three things can happen when you put the ball in the air and two of them are bad. And so forth. I actually think going back to the early game playcalls was the right thing to do in that situation and a tipped INT like that is just “shit happens”. And credit Tennessee for making smart plays and effort plays to cash in. (P.S.: Note that the Steelers tipped at least two passes at the line that I can think of: one by TJ Watt that was tipped just over Robert Spillane’s head, and one that Vince Williams tipped that went right to AJ Brown for a good gain. Like I said, shit happens.)
In the end, the defense was a wall, and it only cost the Steelers 3 points.
Pittsburgh stalled after a series that featured three key bad outcomes in a row––by dar the worst series of the game. First after a nice run on the first play of the series, James Conner got the handoff a second time and the left side of the OL just made the seas part. There was basically a huge hole and a WR/CB on that side of the field facing Conner. Instead, Conner tried running into the A gap, slipped and was buried for no gain. Next, Diontate Johnson fell down on an open comeback that would have been near a first down. On the 3rd and 10 that followed, Ben made his worst throw of the day by far: An attempt to throw to the sticks was forced into a blanketed JuJu Smith-Schuster and should have been intercepted. This decision, made despite having DJ on the out and Conner free underneath, was just not good, smart football. The Steelers are thanking their lucky stars today that it didn’t cost them worse than it did.
After a ridiculous late-hit penalty call on James Pierre, the Titans started at their own 30, down 10 and with just over a quarter of the game remaining. The Titans started the 4th quarter with the first effective Henry run for a 1st down. They followed with that tipped ball to AJ Brown and another two effective runs from the suddenly grooving Derrick Henry… all of that got them to the 1. Terrell Edmunds did a fantastic job covering Johnnu Smith and knocked it away on 2nd down, Robert Spillane had basically a Donnie Shell-on-Earl campbell run stuff that knocked Spillane out of the game on 3rd, and the Steelers D was set for a 4th adn 1 to put the game away. Yet ANOTHER set point. Unfortunately, the Titans executed an excellent (and legal) pick play that forced Minkah into holding Johnnu Smith, giving the Tennessee a 1st and goal from the 1 foot line and Henry lept uncontested into a 24-27 ballgame.
At this point, with the big lead basically gone, and the momentum completely shifted, everyone in the stadium and watching at home knew the Steelers needed a TD on the upcoming drive. Anything less, and Tennessee would have the ball late, with a chance to tie or win the game––which, considering the current flow of the game was not a pleasant option for anyone rooting for the black and gold.
Pittsburgh, once again, went back to the early game formula, with passes attacking the outside and underneath of the Titans defense. Ben looked sharp, using a pump fake to open up JuJu on the deep sideleine and only mis-connecting on a backshoulder attempt to DJ that Johnson didn’t realize was coming and a throw to JuJu that was defended well by Jayon Brown.
Narrator: Foreshadowing alert!
By the way, as if we didn’t have enough angita and angina from this game, it was at this point that the video feed went out, and none of us saw the action for three plays. FYI, they were:
3rd & 3 at TEN 32
(5:42 – 4th) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short right to D.Johnson to TEN 28 for 4 yards (T.Smith).
1st & 10 at TEN 28
(4:57 – 4th) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short middle to R.McCloud to TEN 25 for 3 yards (M.Butler).
2nd & 7 at TEN 25
(4:11 – 4th) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short right to J.Washington.
For 15 plays, multiple 3rd down conversions, and 7 and a half minutes of glorious possession time run off the clock, the Steelers drove it all the way down to a 3rd and 2 at the Tennessee 9. The next two plays almost decided the ball game, and neither in a good way. First, the Steelers ran a short screen to Claypool that would have either been a 1st down or short by a couple of inches. But the play was called back for offensive pass interference. OPI is one of those fouls that you can call a lot if you’re so inclined but is rarely called with the game on the line. it’s more like a ‘message call” early in the game to let teams know you’re paying attention and they have to clean it up. In this case, there were two reasons not to throw the flag:
1. Samuels never laid his hands on the defender… you could argue he simply tried to run his route vs press coverage
2. Samuels is allowed to block before the throw until he’s more than 1 yard downfield… he was within 1 yard when the ball was released (see screen grab)
Pittsburgh then had a 3rd and 12… still their chance to put the game away. Again.
Ben Roethlisberger spotted a LB covering JuJu Smith-Schuster 1-on-1 with no safety help and facing away from the QB. Roethlisberger threw a dime over the back of Jayon Brown and dropped it in both of JuJu’s hands, but Jayon Brown––to his credit––made a tremendous play, knocking the ball out of JuJu’s hands and up into the air and the waiting arms of Kenny Vaccarro. Once again, Steelers needed 7 to put the Titans away, and a lack of aggression there would have been wildly criticized. In this case, the decision was solid––he had a LB facing away from his WR and in single-coverage. The throw was on the money. JuJu got both hands on it and was about to win the game. But “the other guys”, as Ray Pinney used to say, “are on scholarship, too.”. Chalk it up to a resilient Titans team and a great individual effort from Jayon Brown, who was a total pain in the ass in this game. Chapeau to him.
Thankfully, we’re talking about this after a final stand by the Steelers D, a missed FG, and a 6-0 start. How sweet is… for a day, until preparations begin for the Steelers’ biggest game of the season thus far: a trip to Baltimore with division and playoff seeding positioning on the line. Let’s hope they take it one blade of grass at a time.
When you have outlier good depth, there’s no advantage if you don’t use them. The Steelers targeted 9 different players in the passing game and handed it off to 4 different players. And that doesn’t even count the use of AV, Jerald Hawkins, & newly promoted DL Henry Mondeaux as eligible players.
Cam Sutton did a nice job stepping in for the injured Mike Hilton and nearly having a diving interception on the game’s first series.
TJ Watt simply had another outstanding day, with 5 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, a pass batted down, a sack, and a QB hit.
Steeler Special Teams have often given new meaning to the word “special” but this group––despite poor punting other than yesterday––has been excellent as a whole and a big factor in the team’s 6 wins. If Jordan Berry can kick like he did yesterday, they may even enter a game with the Ravens without a massive disadvantage on special teams for the first time in memory.
This is the 1st time in franchise history the Steelers have scored 25 points or more in all of their first 6 games and they have tied the 3rd-longest streak of surrendering 30 or fewer in their franchise history since the NFL merger/SB era. This stretch ties the best Cowher era streak from 2000-2001 and sits only 3 games behind the 1989-90 team’s 24. You have to go all the way back to a 34-game stretch in the dead ball era of 1971-72 to find any others longer than the current one. That would be impressive even if the rules hadn’t changed the game––considering the way scoring is in 2020 it’s truly remarkable.