The Steelers 27-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans was billed as the heavyweight bout of the week — the contest that would tell us who would take pole position between two 5-0 squads. It was also the Steelers first away game in 41 days, and the first of three straight.
In a tale of two halves, we learned a lot. Here’s a sampling, organized by the quotes before and after the game:
“We wanted to answer all questions from you guys about how we start the game. And so, we took the ball, we went down the field and scored a touchdown so you guys can stop asking me about it.”
— Mike Tomlin
When I saw this line, the first thing I thought of was not the seven minute march the Steelers put on, during which they covered 100 yards by overcoming penalties. It was not the 100% third down percentage the team posted (which lasted for their first eight conversions). It wasn’t even the tongue-in-cheek fiestiness of the head coach.
Instead, I thougth about how they were burned by the Philadelphia Eagles for 10 of 14 on third downs two weeks ago. That day, Philly converted over and over on this supposedly powerhouse defense. And even though the Steelers won by two possessions, Tomlin acknowledged that this problem needed to get worked out.
And then it was.
Against Cleveland (the top rushing offense in football), the Steelers allowed 1 of 12 on third downs, and then 0 of 3 on fourth downs. What’s more, this was more than a one-week fix. The Steelers held the powerful Titans offense to 5 of 13 on third downs this week too.
In other words, when there’s a problem, these guys are capable of solving it on the fly. Just like the first-drive touchdown streak. Or the consecutive games with a turnover streak. Or the interceptions these guys used to be unable to snare...
As Tomlin also put it this week: “We’re looking to learn every Sunday. Hopefully we’re learning while winning” So far, yes.
“We all eat!!!... #TooDeep”
— Chase Claypool
I wrote in last week’s edition about how the Steelers players seemed to be having fun even when they weren’t lighting it up individually. Chase Claypool had entered the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation after his last three games – an 84 yard touchdown against Denver (still the longest reception in the league so far); a four-touchdown performance against Philly (which put him in the same conversation with Gayle Sayers and Jim Brown for rookie performances); and a jet-sweep rushing touchdown against Cleveland (his second on the ground in two weeks). Against Tennessee, he caught one pass for –2 yards, which he fumbled and then (in a moment of ridiculous luck) recovered on a clean bounce. Not an epic day for the rookie.
And yet, look at that excitement. That’s what the Steelers locker room looks like right now. After the Browns game, JuJu Smith-Schuster (1 pass for 6 yards that day), said, “People tell me you only got me two points this week in fantasy. I’d rather have two points and be 5-0 than be 1-5 and have 25 fantasy points. . . . I’m having fun all the time whether I get the ball or not. Whether it’s two catches for 10 yards or six catches for 60 yards, it’s more for the team...” That’s the Steelers locker room. Awesome.
On a week where the 5-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers invite the hungriest me-first diva in football into their huddle like a hand grenade with a loose pin, the Steelers continue play the long game. And they’re the last unbeaten team in football for it.
“He was a hard worker. He was a guy that was always flying around, whether he was on scout team or getting second-team reps... It’s fun to play with him.”
— Minkah Fitzpatrick, about Robert Spillane
Robert Spillane is more than just the next man up. He’s no Devin Bush, and he’s not going to make anyone flash back to Ryan Shazier, but he’s a legit player. I’m reminded of Brett Keisel — a 7th round draft pick who made his bones by hustling on special teams for several years before his time came. And then played like a football player from there.
It’s easy, as fans, to root for guys who come up from the bottom, just for the story alone. But when you hear teammates talk this way, you know you’re dealing with a gamer. As Tomlin said this week, “we’ve got a great deal of confidence in Robert.” Watching him play the last two weeks, I’m not surprised.
“They got a 250-pound running back. There’s no going slow into the hole.”
— Robert Spillane
WHAT A HIT vs DERRICK HENRY pic.twitter.com/vcX93anCyM— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) October 25, 2020
I include this solely as an excuse to relive this play.
“It’s not like we had a grizzly veteran in that position.”
— Mike Tomlin, on replacing Devin Bush with a relative newcomer
A quick reminder: the Steelers are an incredibly young team, still. Back in August I wrote about how young their offense is — highlighted by a wide receiver room in which no one is 25 years old yet, and backfield where James Conner (the oldest member) is still 25 himself. (Note: Derek Watt has been aquired since then, and he’s 28, but he wasn’t brought in to tote ball, and has zero carries thus far.) Even the veteran offensive line has showed young resiliance with Chukwuma Okorafor and Kevin Dotson in relief.
But the defense is not far behind. Bush is a young player (still 22), and already a budding star. But at his position, Spillane (25), Ulysees Gilbert III (23), and Marcus Allen (24) are all still on the rise as well. These guys have room to grow, but (as Tomlin said above) they’re winning while they learn.
“In all of Derrick Henry’s highlights, when have you ever seen him stiff-arm or run over anyone that’s close to his size? Never…. He has late play bravery…. when it’s T.J. Watt, when it’s Bud Dupree, when it’s Vince Williams, he gonna have to see those boys. It’ll be different…. I’m telling you that junk is fake bravery. It’s late bravery….”
— Ryan Clark
I love Ryan Clark. Stephen A. Smith’s eyes barely stay in their sockets, but Clark knew what he was talking about. For the second week in a row, the Steelers faced a #1 running attack and shut them down. First, the Cleveland Browns came in at #1 as a team, getting 188.4 yards per game, and finished with 75 against the Steelers. Then Derrick Henry came in leading the league individually, getting 117.6 yards per game, and himself finished with (coincidentally) 75 yards against the Steelers.
This defense is by far the best in the league at pressuring the quarterback (and if they finish the season how it’s started, they’ll be in the discussion for the best pressure defense of all time). But clearly they aren’t a one-trick pony.
This coming week won’t just be the third consecutive game against a conference rival with one loss or fewer. The Ravens have moved into the #1 position in rushing (164.3 ypg). In Baltimore’s case, it comes from an option/RPO game, which is different than the Browns or Titans. But the Steelers lived in the Ravens backfield last year. In Lamar Jackson’s only start in the rivalry, Pittsburgh held Baltimore’s record-setting rushing attack 67.0 yards below their season average, sacked Jackson five times and snagged three interceptions. (Note: Jackson entered that game having only thrown four interceptions in his career.) It was, by a wide margin, the worst game of the reigning MVP’s career.
These Steelers may just be the team to shut the Ravens down.
(Postscript: Clark later apologized to Henry for these remarks. But the Steelers had their former safety’s back when the cameras rolled.)
“It’s not often that you lose the turnover battle 3-0, fail to get a red-zone stop, and still beat a previously undefeated opponent on the road”
— Gary Gramling in Sports Illustrated
“Steelers only need to get it half right… Pittsburgh doesn’t need a complete game to beat good teams…”
— Jason LaConfora in CBS Sports
I’m including both of these as reminders that this was an impressive performance. It’s easy to obsess over the things that went wrong in the second half – and I suspect that’s what Mike Tomlin is doing this week. But let’s not forget: this was a hell of an achievement.
We often say that great teams win games even when they don’t play their best. To beat one of the best in the game when you make a bunch of mistakes — when you drop multiple interceptions while throwing three, when you give up a 70 yard touchdown on a crossing pattern, when you turn a 16 play drive into zero points — that’s some serious chops.
And let’s try to remember, when the Steelers were on top of their game in the first half, they didn’t just beat the Titans, they obliterated them. Pittsburgh had 161 yards before the Titans accumulated their second. They had 14 points and 16:23 of possession before the Titans recorded their first 1st down. This dominance didn’t come against the New York Jets or the 2008 Lions. Tennessee had one of the best offenses in football. And the Steelers only played half a game and beat them.
This team may very well be special.
“There’s been a number of deflected passes today...”
— Charles Davis, CBS announcer
I’ve thought a lot about this one. It seems to me that Big Ben is getting more passes batted at the line than any other year of memory. Here’s my theory: this is the shortest passing game the Steelers have run in Ben’s career. Moreover, he’s holding the ball the shortest period of any quarterback in football (as staggering 1.7 seconds, according to Pro Football Reference). In other words, the pocket hasn’t cleared when he’s passing, and the ball is coming out lower than if he was throwing over the heads of the defense. It doesn’t take a ferocious pass rush to put hands in the air and pray.
It’s a problem that I’d like to see the Steelers fix. But this might just be an occupational hazard of throwing quick and short. And while I’d like to see the Steelers push the ball up the field a little more often, this strategy is clearly working. Nothing comes without a cost; hopefully this one won’t be deadly.
“I think it’s just the defense making a play... I had the ball in my hand, they knocked it out... that’s just a good play on them.”
— JuJu Smith-Schuster
This is a reference to the late interception Roethlisberger threw in the end zone, after a 16 play drive that swallowed half the fourth quarter.
There was a lot of negativity floating around after the Titans’ comeback nearly hit home. That’s was understandable (I was pretty deflated immediately after the contest too). But it’s worth remembering that the other guys get paychecks too. And in this case, the other guys were an undefeated team in their own house, whose last defeat was in the AFC title game.
“He missed it? Whaaa?”
— Ben Roethlisberger, watching Stephen Gostkowski miss the game winning field goal
I love this clip. Let’s remember: sometimes it takes luck too. We like to think that every play and every game is a measure of who’s “better,” but it takes luck too.
Then again, sometimes it’s also about being really really good.
Right now the Steelers are juggling both luck and talent. Cross your fingers that they both carry through to this week in Baltimore.