Riding a four-game winning streak, the Titans were a team firing on all cylinders coming into Thursday night.
The dashboard lights came on at Heinz Field for the AFC South squad, and by the end of the game, Tennessee (6-4) had completely stalled out, as Pittsburgh (8-2) towed away a convincing 40-17 victory in front of a raucous crowd, adding to a now-five-game winning streak.
Marcus Mariota threw four interceptions, and was sacked five times, while the ground game was held to a miserable 52 yards on 21 attempts.
“I thought we answered the bell tonight and really got better as the game wore on,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “We stayed together and made plays, really in all three phases. We produced turnovers, took advantage of turnovers, took care of the ball on the other side, all the necessary things that developing good teams need to do.”
The Steelers, who have a firm 3.5 game grasp of first place in the AFC North, hung three touchdowns following a 75-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to Rishard Matthews 11 seconds into the third quarter, which made it a 16-14 game.
One of those touchdowns, a Jesse James one-yard snag off a play-action goal line toss from Ben Roethlisberger, capped a methodical 10-play, 75-yard drive on the first play of the fourth quarter, giving the Steelers a massive momentum bump, which extended the lead to a 30-17 difference.
Roethlisberger, who threw for 299 yards on 30-of-45 passing, connected with Antonio Brown—who finished with 10 grabs for 144 yards and three touchdowns—on a diving 10-yard highlight reel catch to seal the deal, giving Pittsburgh a commanding 20-point lead with 12:12 left in the game.
“I think we did the best we could today,” said Brown, who caught three touchdown passes for just the second time in his career Thursday. “I think we came out a little slow, but in the second half, we picked it up and got the job done.”
Using the golden leg of kicker Chris Boswell, who added first half boots from 28, 41 and 50-yards, the Steelers absconded to the locker room with a 16-7 lead, never corralling momentum due to several stagnant offensive series, including a stall out from the nine-yard line going in, where a sack and a false start kept the team out of the end zone.
The rushing attack, which included a quiet 46-yards on 12 carries campaign from Le’Veon Bell, totaled for just 65 yards, never made much of an impact in the game, with only 21 rushing plays called on the night.
“We talk all the time about the big picture,” said Tomlin. “We need to be a team that is well balanced, a team that is capable of running it on anyone. The potential for that balance is big for us. Tonight, we threw it a lot.”
Roethlisberger made it a point to address the mundane offensive unit at halftime.
“I don’t do it a lot, unless it feels necessary,” Big Ben explained of his impromptu team meeting. “I wanted to challenge all of us. I include myself in that. I told the guys that the defense has done their job and more. They did enough in the first half. Just someone has to step up and make a play for this time, or else, we are going to keep relying on the defense. I love the way they all responded.”
While it took the latter two quarters to ignite the point-scorers, the defense had their foot pressed firmly on the throats of Tennessee’s offense wire-to-wire, allowing just two trips to the red zone and just 2.6 yards-per-carry for the AFC South’s hottest offense.
“I definitely feel like we’re getting better and better as each game progresses,” said Ryan Shazier, who finished with 10 tackles on the night. “I feel like we really put it together tonight, and showed that we’ve been working on the things that hurt us, and that we’re getting better for it.”
Despite being down two men in the secondary, the group stepped up immensely, forcing miscues from Mariota, including injured starter Mike Mitchell’s replacement, Robert Golden, who picked off Tennessee’s quarterback at the 48 early in the fourth quarter, which set up a Boswell 26-yard field goal, extending the lead to what would be the final score.
Golden credited the persistent pressure put on Mariota by Cam Heyward and the Steelers’ defensive line for the success of the secondary Thursday night.
“The fruits of the labor shows, when the rush gets there, and the quarterback has to kind of throw it away, and we get the interceptions,” said Golden. “That was how it kind of was all night, and hopefully, we can keep it going.”
Despite getting off 22 passes for 306 yards, Mariota was on the run for much of the game, as Heyward alone sacked the signal-caller twice, including a crucial 15-yard loss on a 3rd & 4 play in the red zone, which forced a 44-yard Ryan Succop field goal, making it a 23-17 game with 5:34 left in the third quarter.
“We made the plays, and we got the job done tonight,” said Heyward. “We had some nice stunts to get to the quarterback, and we made the best of the opportunities we had. We are getting better as a defense and it showed.”
Mike Hilton, Sean Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, who replaced the injured Joe Haden, each added interceptions.
“If you throw four interceptions, it’s tough to win,” said Mariota. “A lot of credit to Pittsburgh, they made a bunch of plays and got the best of us.”
Sensabaugh, whose momentum-swinging pick at the 48-yard line midway through the second quarter, added the most jubilant line of the night.
“It feels great to be 8-2. I’ve never been 8-2 in my career, so this feels awesome,” the cornerback said. “As a team, we feel great. We have to keep building on this.”
Titans’ Defensive Coordinator, Dick LeBeau returned to the Steel City, where he spent 13 years as the Steelers’ DC. Now 80 years old, LeBeau is the oldest coach (both coordinator and head) to currently serve in the NFL. His Titans’ defense, which ranks 16th in the NFL, giving up an average of 330 yards per game, surrendered a total of 349 yards to the Steelers Thursday night.
After the spread
The Steelers closed as 7-point home favorites, covering the line with ease, making it the third time in four home games this year that Pittsburgh has covered (vs. Cincinnati -4, vs. Minnesota -8.5.)
The over/under, which was set at 44.5, went well over with 57 combined points scored, marking just the second game this year that the Steelers have gone over in a game (40 vs. Cincinnati 29-14.)
Riding a five-game winning streak, the Steelers will look to continue to stay in the “W” column, when they host Green Bay for the NBC Sunday night game. Kickoff from Heinz Field is set for 8:30 PM.