The Steelers are home at Heinz Field for a game for just the fourth time this season, and will have four more over the course of their final six games. This is their first primetime game as hosts of the season as well, amazingly enough, and will be one of two.
But this is a big one, taking on one of the handful of teams in the AFC who have fewer than four losses at the moment in the Titans. While the Steelers may have a three-game lead in their own division, they have their sights set higher than just the division title. They want the top seed.
They will have to fare tonight, however, without half of their starting secondary, as not only is Joe Haden out–Coty Sensabaugh making his first start of the season against the team that drafted him–but so too is Mike Mitchell, with Robert Golden presumably starting in his place. Also out is Vance McDonald.
The Steelers have all six wide receivers dressed for this game I believe for the first time this season, while Brian Allen also gets a helmet, unsurprisingly, with Haden down.
The Steelers won the coin toss and Ben Roethlisberger politely chose to receive the ball. Rocky Bleier, Andy Russell, and John Banaszak were out for the towel wave.
Shockingly, the opening kickoff went for a touchback. Eli Rogers opened in the slot, the first pass of the game going to Antonio Brown for 12. Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for another first down on the next play. A quick-hitter to Brown set up a second and short, with Le’Veon Bell picking up the first.
Roethlisberger looked for Smith-Schuster down the field, but Adoree Jackson turned and broke up the pass. On second and 10 from the 46 of the Titans, off a free play, Roethlisberger hit Brown down the field for the touchdown, the offense looking like it should on this drive…especially Roethlisberger and the passing game.
Following a touchback, Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense took the field for the first time. His first pass was a screen low and incomplete to DeMarco Murray. Murray and Stephon Tuitt collided at the line, but the back won, yet only picked up a couple of yards. Never saw Tuitt lose like that. Wow. On third and eight, Mariota overthrew his target and Mike Hilton picked it off, his second interceptiot nof the year, returning it from midfield to around the 25-yard line, setting up the offense.
Another Roethlisberger to Brown connection went for 10 on a back shoulder throw. Inside the 20, the handoff went to Bell for about five. Inside the 10 now, Roethlisberger couldn’t quite connect with Jesse James in the end zone, the tight end wanting a pass interference penalty, but not getting it. On third and five, Roethlisberger was forced to scramble out of pressure, Marcus Gilbert drawing a facemask penalty on an incomplete pass. I think that was Gilbert’s first penalty of the year.
Taking the penalty to make it third and 20, Roethlisberger took a shot into the end zone looking for James, but the ball was too high and out of bounds. Chris Boswell still connected on the 41-yard field goal, making it 10-0 early.
Jackson got a returnable kick and took the ball out to the 32. Rotating fronts late, Murray was met in the far hole for four yards by Bud Dupree on first down. Jackson got the ball for four yards, maybe five, to set up third and short. While the Steelers stopped them, the Titans did not get the play off in time for a delay of game, so the stop didn’t count. Now third and six, Mariota found Rishard Mathews in front of Artie Burns for the conversion. The Steelers blitzed with six on the play.
From the 46, after a timeout from the Titans, Derrick Henry embarrassed the defense by running away from a number of defenders and forcing Sean Davis to miss a tackle. It should have gone for a loss, but instead went for over 10.
Off play action, Mariota found Mathews over the middle of the field for about 18. From the 25, Murray was limited to two yards up the middle. Vince Williams helped limit him to one on second down, closing a hole up the middle. On third and long, Mariota connected with Corey Davis down the left sideline, beating Burns for the first down to set up first and goal.
From the seven, Ryan Shazier made the tackle on Murray for no gain off left guard on first down. The handoff to Eric Decker set up a gadget play that was a bust, forcing him to just throw the ball to avoid a loss of yardage. Now third and goal from the seven, Shazier couldn’t get home on the blitz and Mariota scrambled for the touchdown, cutting the 10-point lead down to just three at 10-7.
After a Terrell Watson return to about the 25, James Conner checked in but was stopped for no gain on first down. Actually lost a yard. They gave it to him again and he got stuff again. He checked out on third down, and Roethlisberger could not connect with Smith-Schuster on third down. Brian Orakpo, who blew up the second-down run, was injured on the play. Mike Hilton made the tackle on the other end of the punt, returned to around the 35.
The drive began with a beautiful throw, hitting Decker on a corner route past Hilton, taking advantage of the size disparity. Across midfield, a screen to Decker went for four. On second down, Cameron Heyward broke through the lines to sack Mariota, his team-leading sixth of the year, to close the quarter. On third and 14, from the 47, the Steelers jumped offside. Heyward was flagged, but he wasn’t the only one. Now third and nine, Mariota hit Delanie Walker near the first down, but was just short, Shazier making the tackle. On fourth and about a foot, Mariota kept it and moved the chains.
At the 32, Murray was buried by a swarming defense for a loss of two. The defense stayed home through some window dressing on what ended up being a screen, making the tackle for a loss of one to Murray. Now third and 13, back to the 35…check that, third and 18 at the 40 after a false start, Mariota hit Murray in the flat to pick up a chunk of yards to get back into field goal range, but the Steelers blocked it, T.J. Watt getting his hand on it. Big play that preserves the lead from the rookie.
Taking over at the 38, Bell was controlled on an interior screen pass for a short loss. Roethlisberger took a shot down the right sideline to Brown, but the ball went too long. On third and 11, Roethlisberger was sacked thanks to a stunt up the middle. Berry’s punt went out of bounds at the 29-yard line.
Watt got back in coverage to break up a pass on first down. Mariota hit Walker for seven to the left sideline with Watt in coverage again. Now third and three, swarming pressure got home for the second time of the game, Tuitt getting his second sack in as many games. Heyward and Watt were right there at the end as well. Brown fielded the punt at the 22 and picked up a few yards to about the 30.
Jesse James was the recipient of the first pass of the drive for five yards. On second down, Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant on the back shoulder throw, but he played off the cornerback for pass interference. That set up second and 15. On the draw, Bell picked up about seven. Now third and long, the Steelers got another free play on an offside, so Ben took a shot to Bryant on a jump ball, incomplete. On third and short, Roethlisberger spun out of a sack, but his subsequent pass landed right in the dirt well short of any receiver. Berry this time got off a great punt that the Titans let bounce, Darrius Heyward-Bey downing it inside the five. A hold on the Titans set up half the distance from the goal at about the two.
And of course Henry bounced a run around the right edge for 16 yards. Ridiculous.
Now at the 18, Williams this time shot the gap to tackle Murray for a loss of two. Mariota couldn’t get the ball out to Mathews through a tight window, but Tuitt was flagged for roughing the passer. My initial impression is that it was a bad call. I wouldn’t expect a fine for him.
At the 31, off play action, Murray got the ball out in the flat, Shazier forcing him out after a short gain, but Watt was flagged for illegal hands to the face, adding five yards and a first down. Now out to the 36, the defense proves to be at its best when it best many hats to the ball, flushing the back out wide and bringing him down for a loss. But Henry got a chunk up the middle to set up third and five. Decker was left open in the flat for the first to about midfield.
From midfield, Coty Sensabaugh, Mariota’s former teammate, picked off the young cornerback, jumping the route and returning the ball to inside the 20, chased down by Mariota himself.
Officially ruled out at the 20, Bell picked up a big blitz up the middle, allowing Roethlisberger to heave a ball into the end zone, which Bryant nearly came down with for the score. It would have been an impressive finish. On second down, Bell got the ball, limited to three yards up the middle. Now quickly looking at a third and long, Roethlisberger found Bell in the flat to set up a first and goal, their first conversion on third down all game.
At the nine, Roethlisberger from five wide wanted Bell in the left corner in one-on-one coverage by a linebacker, but Bell couldn’t get there. Now second and goal, he was sacked for the second time of the game for a loss of six. On third and goal from the 20 after a false start, the penalty on DeCastro, Roethlisberger scrambled for some reason for about 11 yards, perhaps just to make sure the Titans have to use a timeout. Boswell’s 28-yard make gave the Steelers a 13-10 lead, but that’s two drives off of interceptions deep into Titans territory that they couldn’t turn into touchdowns, which could really come back to haunt them by the end of this game.
On first down, Hilton on the run blitz cut down Murray for a loss of four. While he couldn’t get the angle for the tackle on a screen on second down, the defense limited the play to four yards. Now third and 10, Henry was stuffed on the draw. The Steelers burned their timeouts to get the ball back with over a minute remaining.
The first pass was a short one to James, out of bounds for three. Logan Ryan broke up a pass for Smith-Schuster to the left sideline, but an illegal use of hands on Jackson gave them five and a first.
At the 41, Roethlisberger under pressure got the ball over the Bryant over the middle, who dropped it, but it didn’t look like an opportunity to gain much, so it may have almost been better off as no catch. On the run, Roethlisberger found Brown with the ball spilling out, but Bryant fell on it. Roethlisberger clocked it at the 31 with 32 second left.
On second down, Roethlisberger checked down to Bell, who also dropped the ball, but again looked like a play without much opportunity for advancement. Already looking at third and 10, Roethlisberger’s pass was high over James’ reach as the quarterback was hit. Boswell from 50 yards out straight down the middle was good, giving Pittsburgh a 16-7 lead, regaining a two-possession advantage, with seconds remaining in the half.
Considering the circumstances, Roosevelt Nix’s tackle on Jackson on the ensuing kickoff at the 14 was big. Mariota took a knee to head into the locker room, knowing he’ll get the ball to start the second half.