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Knee-jerk analysis: Vanilla Steelers win in vintage vanilla Steelers fashion

The Steelers get to 5-3 in the most default way possible

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

If you Googled “Basic Steelers win,” this game is what you would find.

Pittsburgh defeated the Tennessee Titans 20-16 in the Week 9 opener on Thursday Night Football to get to 5-3 and now look like they are in good shape to earn a Wildcard spot in the AFC playoff picture as long as they take care of business the rest of the way.

Let’s start with the positives. For starters, the offense had its best opening drive in the Pickett era. Matt Canada called a really good opening sequence that resulted in a Najee Harris touchdown. Like it or not, Canada was good all night. Broderick Jones had a fantastic game at right tackle, getting to the second level throwing lead blocks all night including one on Harris’ score. Speaking of Harris, he and Jaylen Warren were tremendous. They combined for 157 yards on 27 carries- that was the most dominant run performance we’ve seen from the Steelers in a long time. Diontae Johnson was very good, and he got into the end zone for the first time since 2021. He had seven catches for 90 yards, both of which led the team- another good day for No. 18. Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, and Elandon Roberts also had great games- more on them in the Varsity & JV piece tomorrow.

Despite penalties (which we’ll discuss) Joey Porter Jr. held DeAndre Hopkins in check. After a three-touchdown game in Week 8, Hopkins had only four receptions for 60 yards. The Steelers protected the ball, as well, ending the game with zero turnovers- that’s always going to get a big gold star. Even the third-down efficiency, which is usually awful, as solid. The Steelers went 6-of-12 on third down tonight- more of that please. The defense was what we’ve grown accustom to. Bend, don’t break at times, get pressure on the quarterback, and keep the opponent out of the end zone. This was the 17th game over the last two seasons that the Steelers have held teams to 20 or fewer points. Despite their tendencies to give up big plays, the defense is more than doing their part.

Now for the bad. The penalties were unacceptable. The Steelers came into the week averaging just five flags/game, which is the fourth best in the league- they had five on the first defensive drive alone, including three on Joey Porter, two of which were accepted. The Steelers ended the night with 10 penalties- that can’t happen. Neither can the splash plays. Kyle Phillips, of all people, was torching the Steelers with big catch after big catch to move the chains. If a bottom-tier Titans team is doing that, God help the Steelers when they face the Bengals twice.

And, you all are going to groan when I say this, but Tennessee’s No. 8 looked far better than the Steelers’ No. 8. Levis showed better arm strength, he was making good decisions, and he didn’t look like a guy playing in just his second game. He threw for 102 more yards, as well- he was the better quarterback.

This was the most vanilla win the Steelers could ask for. It was the same formula that has been used to get all of their wins over the last two seasons. The opponent was held to less than 20 points- the Steelers are 13-4 over the last two seasons when that is the case and 1-7 when teams score more than 20 points. And that’s a fine strategy when you play the Titans or the Rams or the Raiders- it can work against the middle class of the NFL. You know who that’s not working against? The Chiefs. The Bengals. The Dolphins. The Bills. The good teams of the conference who you are going to have to go through.

So the Steelers got the win, they’re 5-3- that’s great. But how they’re winning puts a hard lid on how far they can go. This is a team who, at their best, will be dominated by the league’s elite. It’s hard to find positivity when that is so evident.