The Pittsburgh Steelers are set to kick off their third preseason game, hosting the Tennessee Titans. All healthy starters are expected to play, including Ben Roethlisberger, Cameron Heyward, Joe Haden, Maurkice Pouncey, and others. Players who have been dealing with minor ailments such as Antonio Brown and T.J. Watt are up in the air.
This will be a big game to evaluate some of the newer components of the team. Defensively, all eyes are going to be on Jon Bostic at inside linebacker, and a lot of attention is going to be paid to the safety position with Sean Davis getting his most extended playing time at free safety, thought Morgan Burnett is not dressed, so he’ll be working with Terrell Edmunds. With Mike Hilton out, Cameron Sutton will get a key long look in the slot with the first-team offense–presumably, unless Coty Sensabaugh plays.
On the offensive side of the ball, the two biggest things that will be monitored is the connection between Roethlisberger and rookie James Washington as well as the performance in the passing game of second-year running back James Conner, who has run well but has not been asked to do much as a receiver or pass protector.
Despite all the hoopla, even with Antonio Brown sidelined, Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey took the field with JuJu Smith-Schuster on the first snap of the game rather than James Washington. Conner carried for four yards on first down. Roethlisberger overthrew Jesse James on second down. Smith-Schuster made a tough catch over the middle to convert on third down, taking a hit in the process.
With Washington now in, Roethlisberger instead found Conner, who was lined up out to the left, taking the pass and gaining a first down. After a four-yard gain, he was limited to about two to set up third and four, though they spotted it five yards away. Roethlisberger induced an encroachment penalty for the first down. Following a bad pass to James, Roethlisberger threw short of the sticks to Smith-Schuster on third down, and they punted at the 42. Jordan Berry’s punt was downed inside the 10 by Brian Allen.
Stephon Tuitt got pressure on first down, but Marcus Mariota got the throw off for a first down. Tuitt got him on the next play, however, for the sack, blowing through the running back. Now second and 18, Mariota was forced to check down to Dion Lewis for 8, setting up third and 10. But the Titans were able to convert on a short pass, Matthew Thomas playing early.
On second and nine, Derrick Henry bounced off of contact at the line of scrimmage for nine yards. It was called third and short. The ball went to Henry again, and he looked to be close, but Tyson Alualu was flagged for illegal use of hands anyway, making it moot.
Henry chugged up the middle for another five yards following the free conversion. At midfield, the Steelers got penetration on an outside run and blew up the play, Vince Williams the first through and the rest cleaning up. Now third and eight, Mariota zipped a pass to an open Corey Davis, but it skipped incomplete. The defense got away with one there. Cameron Sutton lined up back to receive the punt. He returned it and looked active, but got hooked and lost the ball. Roosevelt Nix recovered.
Roethlisberger found Conner again for a gain of 12, picking up yardage after the catch, doing what he needs to do. Now at the 32, he looked deep for Smith-Schuster but overthrown. This time the two did connect for first-down yardage, the receiver possibly taking a shot to the chest or landing on the ball. The Titans were flagged for contact with a defenseless player on the tackle, the defender coming in with a ‘spear’ tackle while Smith-Schuster was down.
Roethlisberger took a deep shot to Washington but the ball was well out of bounds. I wouldn’t say he’s in midseason form so far. He did find Hunter for a gain of about five, being awarded forward momentum. Smith-Schuster dropped an easy pass for a catch-and-run that had the potential to score on what was a free play for offsides. Good thing it happened in the preseason.
Now first down at the 32, Roethlisberger once again threw errant to James for the third time of the game already. On the following play, he threw an arcing shot into the end zone, hitting Hunter for the touchdown, doing a nice job of getting his feet inbounds. The ruling was initially that he was out of bounds, but Mike Tomlin challenged and it was reversed.
Following good coverage on the ensuing kickoff, the Titans’ offense was quickly forced into a third and six. Sensing pressure and taking a hit on the throw, Mariota overthrew the pass for an incompletion. Sutton was back again to return the punt, this time with the Titans deep in their own end. He called for a fair catch at the 26 or so.
The first-team offense stayed out, this time in a run-heavy look with Nix and Chuks Okorafor in as an extra blocker. Conner was limited to a short gain on first down. On second and eight, Roehthlisberger connected with Trey Griffey, getting some early work, for about seven. Now third and short, Conner got the short draw for the needed yard.
Roethlisberger had time and pump faked twice before throwing a high pass to James, getting up there and snaring it. He got cut down and landed hard but got back up, coming off the field. Now Bucky Hodges in.
Miscommunication with Griffey on the following play, who didn’t know when to turn on a quick pass. On second down, Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster connected to the right sideline for nine. Another third and one up, Conner shook a tackle deep in the backfield but was stopped short by two defenders. The offense stayed out for fourth down, Roethlisberger looking to draw an offsides but eventually running the play. He threw a bit behind Smith-Schuster, who was facing pretty tight coverage, the ball bobbled and incomplete for a turnover on downs.
Williams came on the blitz, Henry not sensing the rush, and recording the sack for a loss of seven. Now second and 17, Tuitt chased down Lewis on a screen right, missing the tackle but setting up the defense to finish the play, Matthew Thomas on the tackle. Cameron Heyward got leg-whipped on the play, but didn’t come off the field. A short pass to Lewis only added five to force a punt.
After a pair of short gains by Conner, Landry Jones found Smith-Schuster for a 10-yard reception for the conversion to get to the 20. The ensuing snap was botched, Jones recovering well for an eight-yard loss, B.J. Finney at center. A high, hard snap, but could have been fielded. Jones looked deep to Washington in double coverage but the pass was out of bounds anyway. Now third and 18, a screen to Conner only picked up about 11. Tyler Matakevich made a nice tackle on the punt after a short return.
Lewis picked up eight yards on two carries to set up a third and two for the Titans, Williams making the tackle on second down. Mariota had time to throw, Bud Dupree eventually pressuring him to throw an ill-advised pass, which was intercepted by Terrell Edmunds, cutting in front of the intended target. He also got up and showed good hustle on the return.
Now at the Titans’ 24, Conner was stopped after three yards on first down. They stuck to the ground game and Conner was stuffed for no gain. Now third and long, Jones threw a quick hitter to Hunter, who seemed to have it, but then lose it for what will go down as an interception.
The defense smothered Lewis for a loss of three on first down. The Titans quickly went three and out, including a drop on a third-down pass, forcing another good punt return opportunity for Sutton. He had a little room to return, but only got what was blocked up the middle.
Now just across midfield, Jones squeezed a tight short-yardage pass to James for five yards, now under a minute to go. A screen to Conner went down to the 20 as the Steelers used their first timeout. He was held to just a yard on a short pass on the following play, not using a timeout this time. A short catch over the middle to Smith-Schuster for six left 19 seconds to go with one timeout at the 24. Jones fired a rocket looking for James in the end zone, a high pass off the tight end’s finger tips. It looks like he timed his jump wrong but it would have been a quality catch. Chris Boswell made it 10-0.