The Steelers hard fought victory over the Tennessee Titans Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field was truly a strange game. The Steelers emerged victorious, even after being thoroughly outplayed on both sides of the ball. The Titans were the superior team in every aspect of football; offense, defense, coaching, special teams. It was such a total mismatch early in the contest that Titans HC Mike Vrabel was shown repeatedly on camera smiling ear to ear and visibly chuckling with his players on the sidelines. He couldn't seem to help himself, and who could blame him. The Steelers looked junior varsity at best.
Make no mistake about it, the Tennessee Titans hate the Pittsburgh Steelers. The disdain remains from when the two franchises were heated divisional rivals. Vrabel had his troops riled up and ready to defeat the Steelers and take over the top spot in the AFC conference. It was obvious that the Titans were more focused and intense than the Steelers, who once again appeared flat and disinterested to start the day. That was actually shocking, considering the stakes, and after the majority of the Titans roster strolled defiantly and disrespectfully all over the Steelers emblem at midfield. Where's Jack Lambert, Greg Lloyd, and Joey Porter when you need them. If that is a byproduct of the kinder and gentler NFL, I am not a fan.
The Titans were the superior team in every aspect on Sunday, all besides one. Turnovers. After the game, I read a tweet where someone surmised that the Steelers didn't win the game as much as the Titans managed to lose the contest. Ball security is the great equalizer, and turning the ball over is the quickest way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. If I was a Titans player, coach, or fan; I would literally be sick to my stomach.
Apparently some franchises refuse to learn their lesson. Someone needs to teach the Titans to not tempt fate, to not poke the bear so to speak. You would think they would already know that after obviously not learning their lesson previously after stomping on a Terrible Towel on the sidelines after defeating the Steelers. The Titans looked like the best team in the AFC that season, definitely a team trending up, prior to the Stomp heard round the Burg. They have never quite resembled an elite level team at any point since that fateful day. After even more questionable behavior on their behalf this past Sunday, you have to wonder if the Titans will ever learn their lesson, or forever be remembered as a team that consistently comes up a yard short when it counts.
Steelers Stock Trending Up: Opportunistic defense
My son was busy and didn't get to watch the game with me. When we finally spoke, he had been keeping up with the game periodically on his phone, so he already knew that the Steelers had won. He asked me who all had played a good game, both on offense and defense. On offense, I didn't know what to tell him, so I answered honestly, as I always do. Nobody. In my opinion, nobody on offense for the Steelers played even remotely close to their capabilities.
He appeared almost surprised by my answer. He logically assumed that the Steelers defense must have played lights out. Honestly, not really anything worth writing home about. I explained how the Titans were the superior team in every way on the day, besides the aforementioned turnovers. They even beat themselves when they weren't turning the ball over, with undisciplined penalties and dropped passes. I wanted to give the Steelers defense more of the credit, but I couldn't. The truth is the truth.
The Steelers didn't resemble a good football team on Sunday, even if they won the game on the scoreboard. On the field, they were physically dominated. The Steelers handful of exceptional performers played their hearts out to keep the game competitive, until the Titans handed the game to the Steelers on a silver platter.
Joe Haden returned to action, where he was desperately needed, just in time to play about a third of the snaps, make a diving fumble recovery, and the best form tackle of the season for the Steelers at the biggest moment. He appeared to be a little rusty, badly getting beaten deep on one memorable occasion, where the Titans receiver dropped the easy reception. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
T.J. Watt fought through the talented Titans offensive line to add 1.5 sacks to his league leading total; despite being harassed, double-teamed, and held throughout the game, often all on the same play.
Cameron Heyward continues to wreck havoc on opponents best laid plans, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is far too often the last line of defense standing between the Steelers success and disaster. The Steelers role players are able to contribute occasionally because of the capabilities of these gentlemen.
Steelers Stock Trending Down: Defensive identity
There were numerous oddities throughout what turned out to be a rather uninspiring contest. The Titans found themselves in plenty of third and long scenarios in the game, which is honestly rather surprising for a team that almost doubled the Steelers in time of possession, and rushed for over two hundred yards on the afternoon. Even more shocking was just how easily and consistently the Titans converted them into first downs. I believe that a huge factor in the Steelers struggles to get off the field on third downs is because of their lack of trust and commitment schematically.
Keith Butler and his staff are often caught between wanting to be aggressive with their front seven, but incredibly passive on the backend. Playing soft zone in the secondary, then trying to fly up and tackle the catch, simply doesn't work in the modern NFL. QBs regularly complete 70+% of their passes, and that style of defense turns into a game of pitch and catch for efficient offenses. Basically it's a glorified prevent, especially if the pass rush fails to get home. The Steelers give up easy completions with alarming regularity. There are far too many occasions where the receiver catches the ball without a Steelers defender in the vicinity.
The Steelers need to trust their defensive backs enough to at least attempt to jam and disrupt the rhythm of all these timing dependent offenses. Make the opposing QB hesitant to immediately pull the trigger, allowing the pass rush the opportunity to pressure the passer, not immediately hit a wide open RB in the flat. Whether the Steelers decide to be more aggressive or not, they can no longer survive by trying to be somewhere in the middle.