PRELUDE TO STEELERS VERSUS TENNESSEE TITANS
The battle of unbeatens. The Tennessee Titans won their first three games by three points or less. The Titans thumped the Buffalo Bills then won in overtime. Their 5-0 record achieved despite many players and staff who contracted the Covid-19 virus forcing postponement of the week four game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL reportedly fined the Titans $350 thousand for COVID protocol violations regarding workouts outside the team facility. Mike Vrabel is highly regarded but his time with the New England Patriots may have imbued him with the cheater’s spirit – which he will hopefully outgrow.
Titans were of course Gods. Our Steelers while heroic are mere mortals. Could our heroes like Perseus slay these Gorgons of the Cumberland? The same monsters that froze lesser teams into stone and plucked away victories from their grasp?
THE STEELERS FORECAST
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game. Matt wanted us to watch how the defense manages monstrous Derrick Henry especially Robert Spillane filling in for injured Devin Bush. Then, he shifted our attention to the Steelers passing game at full strength with both Dave DeCastro and Diontae Johnson back. Matt noted the Titans vulnerability to the run.
Tyler Wise identified the key matchup to watch this week. Tyler distilled the key matchup into one simple statement. Stop Derrick Henry.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Dave Bryan identified the five keys to a Steelers victory . First, a large lead neuters Derrick Henry. Second, force Tannehill into third and long plays. Third, run well up the middle keeping Titans off the field. Fourth, feed JuJu the ball. Fifth, prevent points off turnovers.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Titans prediction. Alex foresaw victory if Steelers won battle of the trenches, AJ Brown doesn’t run wild, and Ben Roethlisberger picks Titans apart with short passing game. On the other hand, the Steelers lose if defense can’t manage zone runs, too much defensive miscommunication, and Kevin Byard plays big defensive game. Alex predicted the Steelers winning 31-17.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game?
Steelers score on their first four possessions. Ben’s interception at end of first half mars a dominant show.
TD DROUGHT ON OPENING DRIVES ENDS
The last Steelers touchdown on an opening drive occurred on December 18, 2018 against the New England Patriots; a 17-10 victory. Uncharacteristically, the Steelers opted to receive the ball after winning the coin toss in this game. The offense faced four third downs but converted all of them to sustain the scoring drive. Ben’s short pass to Diontae Johnson on third and 11 was a key play. Ben targeted six different receivers in 12 attempts. James Conner recovered his own fumble to set up a third and one. He ran on the next play to create a new set of downs.
However, loose balls would factor later in the game. Officials penalized Chuks Okorafor twice. Once for holding another for a facemask where he brushed the mask with an open hand rather than grasp it. Yet, the Steelers would not be denied. Ben completed an 11-yard pass to Diontae Johnson to end the TD drought on opening drives.
The touchdown is beautiful but love Ben’s push pass to make something out of nothing:
TWO POSSESSIONS; TWO TDS AND A QUARTER SPENT
The Steelers second possession began with 4:12 left in the first quarter and ended three minutes into the second quarter. The opening possession featured 12 passes and four runs. This drive consisted of seven runs and six passes. One of the “passes” was a handoff to Chase Claypool that he fumbled but recovered for a two-yard loss. The drive began disastrously. Ben under heavy pressure dumped the ball to James Conner behind him for a ten-yard loss. Thankfully, Conner corralled the ball otherwise that was a fumble the Titans would recover. On third and 14, Ben completed 22-yard first down pass to Eric Ebron. Conner ran up the middle to make another first down on third and one to end the first quarter.
Claypool recovers his own fumble mentioned earlier setting up third and 12. JuJu Smith-Schuster catches a 21-yard pass, and the Steelers are back in the red zone. Conner runs nine yards to the three. On the next play, Conner up the middle for first and goal. Then, Ben’s pass is too hot for Conner to handle. Benny Snell comes in and scores the touchdown. Steelers up 14-0. Two possessions; two touchdowns and importantly the offense possess the ball for 16:25. The two drives eat over a quarter of playing time and yield 14 points.
TEN MORE POINTS BUT SQUANDER LAST POSSESSION
The Titans answered the Steelers second touchdown with one of their own to make the score 14-7. From the 25, Conner runs twice for 32 yards. Ben then completed an 18-yard pass to Conner to take the ball to the opposite 25. Conner gains 50 yards in three plays. But the only additional yardage would come compliments of Jadeveon Clowney jumping offsides. Ben’s deep pass bounces off Diontae Johnson’s hands on the free play. Ben cannot complete passes to Ebron or JuJu. Chris Boswell comes on to boot a 38-yard field goal. Steelers back up 17-7.
Pittsburgh capitalizes on Ray-Ray McCloud’s 57-yard punt return leaving 1:35 to go in the half. From the 17 Conner runs once for two yards. Six-yard pass to Diontae sets up third and two with :57 left. Ben goes back to Diontae for nine-yard touchdown. 24-7 but the special teams provide opportunity to extend lead even more on aborted punt.
There are 14 ticks on the clock. Tennessee defense moving around, and Eric Ebron breaks his stance to lose five yards. Ben throws deep to Dionte Johnson. Going for the kill shot. Instead, Dane Cruikshank intercepts at the goal line. Ben squanders an opportunity to extend the lead with a poor pass. Still Pittsburgh up 24-7 at the half.
Three points on first drive then offense shut down. A final drive ate time off clock but ends with interception keeping Titans in it.
OFFENSE STARTS WITH A SCORE
Steelers offense start at 34 following 15-yard McCloud punt return. On first play, Conner runs nine yards. Referees tack on 15 yards when Kenny Vaccaro throws Conner down after he goes out of bounds. Just like that the ball is in Titans territory. Diontae Johnson gains seven. A third and four converted by Malcolm Butler’s defensive pass interference on Chase Claypool. The Steelers in red zone again. Conner gains six then loses three setting up third and seven. The Titans burn a timeout and Ben cannot connect with Ebron. Boswell kicks another field goal. 27-7. Good start.
TITANS DEFENSE STYMIES OFFENSE
Boom! The Titans answer the Steelers field goal with a 73-yard play action touchdown. Steelers fans clench their teeth. Instinctively they know this game may be a close one despite the 27-14 lead. The Titans defend a pass to McFarland and stop Conner for no gain. On third and two Diontae gains seven but that is it. Three plays and Jordan Berry punts for the first time.
The Steelers defense forces a three and out of their own. The offense starts at the 16 following a big 59-yard punt that Ray-Ray signals to fair catch. JuJu picks up a first down on third and three. On first down, Jayon Brown intercepts Ben’s pass intended for Diontae Johnson at the 30-yard line.
Titans score three off the turnover. Conner gains five to the 30. Vance McDonald gets the first down before the Titans upend him at the 39-yard line. That’s it. Conner gains nothing on the ground then two incompletions. The Steelers finish the quarter with a ten-point lead 27-17 but they are on their heels hanging on.
FINAL DRIVE ENDS WITH INTERCEPTION BUT EATS TIME
The Titans score to open the final quarter. It is now a three-point game with 10:13 left to play. A long drive followed by a touchdown could ice the game. The Titans kick short of the goal line. McCloud returns the ball 17 yards to the 18. Mon Dieu! Henry Mondeaux caught holding. Officials march ball back to the nine. Ebron catches two passes for third and one. JuJu gets the first down.
Another third down and JuJu gains just enough to move the chains. Ben completes 28-yard pass to JuJu. Now in Titan territory. 6:31 to play. Tick tock. On third and three Diontae gains four. Diontae converts another third down with eight-yard catch and enters red zone. With 3:35 on clock, Steelers switch gears. Jaylen Samuels runs right for five yards. Conners runs off left guard for three. On third and two Ben’s completion to Claypool negated by offensive pass interference on Samuels. The replay does not show it. On third and 12 JuJu gets a hand on Ben’s pass in the end zone, but Amani Hooker intercepts the ball. Ben’s third interception. A failed drive but 7:38 taken off the clock. The Titans have one timeout and 2:40 left to tie or win the game.
Thankfully, Ben ends the game kneeling down following Gostkowski’s miss. We had ‘em all the way.
Defense gives up seven but otherwise perfect in first half.
ONE STOP; ONE SCORE TO START
The defense did not step onto the field until just 5:37 left in the first quarter. Jonnu Smith’s holding penalty erased Derrick Henry’s first run. Derrick Henry ran for one to set up third and a long 16. Cameron Sutton defended a pass intended for Corey Davis and the Titans punt. First stop of game. Steelers stay ahead 7-0.
Steelers score again and lead 14-0. Defense back on field with 12:16 left in half. Henry gashes defense for two runs for twenty yards as the Titans reach their 45-yard line. Tannehill completes 13-yard pass to AJ Brown on second and four and enter Pittsburgh territory. Titans give ball back to Henry but different results this time. First, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane limit Henry to three yards on first down. Then T.J. Watt tackles Henry for a two-yard loss – consecutive unsuccessful run attempts. But Tannehill finds Adam Humphries over the middle for the first down on third and nine. A couple plays later Mondeaux encroaches to give the Titans an uncontested first down. Henry stopped for no gain. Tannehill scrambles for four. On third and four Corey Davis catches the touchdown pass. The defense stops Tennessee once but then allows a score. 14-7 Pittsburgh still ahead.
DEFENSE CLAMPS DOWN
A Steelers field goal puts the Black and Gold up by ten. Tennessee continues to use their battering ram. Kalif Raymond muffed his catch of the kickoff putting the Titans back on the ten. Derrick Henry runs right but Watt tackles him for a four-yard loss. Henry runs right again and gains nine yards before Vince Williams brings him down. The Steelers expend their second timeout to preserve time. There is 1:54 left in half on third and five, Tannehill fails to connect. Titans punt. McCloud huge return. Another Pittsburgh touchdown and it is 24-7.
With less than a minute and down by three scores. Tennessee goes to the air. Cam Sutton limits Corey Davis to a four-yard gain on first down. On third and six, Tannehill throws short to Anthony Firkser who Steve Nelson and Justin Layne tackle to force a punt.
The defense is only on the field for 10:03 in the first half thanks to the offenses first two drives. But they do their job and prevent Henry from gaining much ground.
Defensive let down lets Titans back into game early. defense bails out Ben after one turnover. Bends but does not break after another.
DEFENSE LET TITANS BACK INTO GAME
The Titans start the second half with the ball. Tannehill goes back to pass on first down. Watt sacks him for seven-yard loss. That is what a three-score lead will do for you. Terrell Edmunds tackles Henry for just a one-yard gain. On third and 16 Edmunds defends a pass, and the Titans must punt. An interception would have been nice here. The Steelers next drive scores three points and Pittsburgh is up 27-7. Great start to the second half!
Henry runs for two yards. He is still enough of a threat to command attention. On the next play, Tannehill passes to AJ Brown on a play action pass. Minkah Fitzpatrick in best position to tackle but lunges instead of closing the gap for the tackle. He started to square up too early. Regardless, the Titans close the gap to 14-27.
DEFENSE WAKES UP; STOP TITANS TWICE
The Titans get the ball back midway in third quarter. Down by 13 and used to playing games close, Tennessee goes back to Henry. Tuitt and Joe Haden stop Henry for no gain. Henry then switches to the left where Alex Highsmith and Williams limit him to two yards. Two more unsuccessful runs. On third down, Cam Sutton tackles Firkser for no yards after the catch to force a punt.
Ben’s second interception gave the Titans the ball at the 30-yard line. Vince Williams sacks Tannehill to start. Watt deflects a pass targeting Jonnu Smith. Tannehill overthrows the receiver on third and 13. Gostkowski kicks a 51-yard field goal but a great result considering the drive started deep in Pittsburgh territory. 27-17.
DEFENSE CAN’T SEAL THE DEAL; BUT FATE INTERVENES
The Steelers hang on to a ten-point lead going into the fourth quarter. With the offense listless can the defense hold it? A special teams penalty places the ball at the 30-yard line to start. Dave Bryan had warned Steelers fans that Derrick Henry could play a crucial factor if the game were close in the fourth quarter. Henry runs three straight times for 15 yards. A pass to Corey Davis and then Tannehill keeps up the middle to convert the third and one. Back to Henry for four setting up a 20-yard pass to AJ Brown on second and six. Henry for 17 then six yards. Steelers defensive backs making the tackles. On third and goal at the one, Henry up the middle where Robert Spillane meets him. Spillane came off with a dinged shoulder but returned later in game. A smashmouth hit.
Tannehill throws an incompletion after feinting to his left on fourth and one. Unfortunately, Minkah Fitzpatrick caught holding. In my view it would have been an easy touchdown if he did not hang on. Maybe he came in at wrong angle. In any case, Henry ran in to make the score 27-24 with 10:13 to play. The game feels like it is slipping away.
BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN GOOD SOMETIMES
The offense ate time off the clock and had the ball at the 19-yard line. But instead of extending the lead, Ben threw and interception to breathe new life into the Titans chances. With 2:35 to go and just one timeout, Ryan Tannehill threw 11 straight passes. AJ Brown caught the first two for 26 yards. At the two-minute warning, Tannehill throws short to Henry on second and one. Joe Haden tackles him for a loss. But Corey Davis open on third and two until tackled by Haden. The Steelers defensive backs playing soft coverage as if they are playing for the tie.
Derrick Henry dropped for another loss on a short pass. On third and 12 Brown beats Haden and Edmunds coverage for 21 yards. Ball is at the 25 with a minute left. Defensive pressure on Tannehill who throws the ball to no one. The intentional grounding causes a loss of down and pushes ball back to the 35. Corey Davis moves the ball up seven more yards but that is it. On fourth and 13, Gostkowski misses the 45-yard attempt.
The defense held Tennessee to a field goal attempt. I’ll take the miss.
I break special teams play into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goal kicking and blocking field goals plus PAT attempts.
Chris Boswell kicked off six times. Three kickoffs were touchbacks. Kalif Raymond returned three for 43 yards. Raymond reached the 25-yard line on the first kick, but a holding penalty brought the ball to the 15-yard line. He muffed a second catch giving the Titans the ball at their own 10. He reached the 26-yard line on his third return to open the second half. Marcus Allen, Jordan Dangerfield, James Pierre, and Ola Adeniyi in on the tackles.
Stephen Gostkowski kicked off five times. The first four kicks were touchbacks. Ray-Ray McCloud returned the last kickoff from the one to the 18-yard line. But Henry Mondeaux’s holding penalty pushed the ball back to the Pittsburgh nine. The Steelers started behind their 25 once while the Titans had two starts behind the 25-yard line. Both teams had a single penalty on kickoffs. Advantage Steelers.
Jordan Berry signed this week after the Steelers released Dustin Colquitt. Berry punted twice averaging 50.0 yards a punt. The Titans fair caught the first at the 19-yard line. Raymond returned the second, but James Pierre tackled him after just five yards. Unfortunately, officials called Pierre for unnecessary roughness as he completed his tackle out of bounds. The ball moved from the 15 to the 30 yards line. Berry netted 47.5 yards a punt.
Brett Kern boomed four punts an average 60.5 yards. However, Ray-Ray McCloud returned three for 83 yards. Ray-Ray ran 11 yards to the 39 on the first. Then 57 yards to the ten-yard line. His third return went 15 yards to the 34. Ray-Ray fair caught the final punt at the 16-yard line. Kern netted 39.8 yards a punt. Kern was back for a punt in the first half that was aborted. He attempted a pass, but it fell incomplete and there was an ineligible receiver downfield. The Titans gave up the ball on downs which the Steelers failed to exploit at the end of the first half. Advantage Steelers.
FIELD GOALS AND POINTS AFTER TDS
Chris Boswell made both his field goal attempts and went three for three on extra point attempts. Gostkowski also went three for three on extra points. He made a 51-yard field goal but missed a 45-yard attempt at the end of the game which was the difference in the game. Advantage Steelers.
DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST REVIEW
- A large lead neuters Derrick Henry. The Steelers big first half lead proved to be enough to win. Henry became a factor after the Titans scored 17 unanswered second half points, but the missed field goal avoided overtime. Mission partially accomplished.
- Force Tannehill into third and long plays. Titans went 5-13 on third down. A crucial stop on third and 13 forced a long 45 field goal attempt that the Titan’s kicker missed. Mission accomplished.
- Run well up the middle keeping Titans off the field. Conner made several good gains up the middle helping the Steelers control time of possession 36:37 to 23:23. Mission accomplished.
- Feed JuJu the ball. JuJu caught nine of 14 passes for 85 yards. Mission accomplished.
- Prevent points off turnovers. Ben threw three interceptions, but the Titans scored only three points off the turnovers. Still there was the opportunity cost of extending the lead at end of first half and icing the game in the fourth quarter. Mission fail.
YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME
FIRST HALF READER COMMENTS
Steelers Depot readers commented 1181 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Ross McCorkle kept us informed with live updates as we chirped our comments.
Matt Manzo liked the defensive realignments he observed. “Dupree in the middle looks like a good call!!!”
Ddrews kept an eye on the clock and the impact of controlling the time of possession in the first half: “Henry can’t hurt you from the sidelines Keep that clock churning.”
CoachCot captured most of our thoughts when the Steelers got a bad spot from the referees. “How was that not a first?” DirtDawg1964 wisely noted, “Tomlin did NOT challenge that bad spot. He’s learning. Spot challenges don’t win often.”
Jay Clam may be referring to Ben’s half ending interception: “At a certain point, you gotta stop with the shots and get the 5 yards for the first, right?”
Uncharacteristically, Mike Tomlin receiving compliments in the middle of a game. Nik Draft called it. “Tomlin out coached the hell out of Vrabel.” Of course, with the Steelers up 24-7 there is not too much to complain about … but if only they scored on that last possession!
SECOND HALF READER COMMENTS
Comments up to 1396 in the 2nd half live discussion. The Steelers start half up 24-7 but hang on for a narrow win.
Chris92021 exhorted the defense, “Keep pounding them into submission. Do not let off the gas. We still haven’t got a sack on Tannehill yet. Keep up the intensity boys!!” T.J. Watt must have heard Chris. Watt sacked Tannehill on the first play of the second half.
Stone Age Tone kept an eye on the time: “Ben milking the clock every play.” Tick tock.
Remember the last sentence of the first half comments? Jason Dock Dudley did, “This is where throwing away that three-point opportunity at end of half comes back. With that, all Steelers would have needed to seal the game was a FG. Nine-point lead.” So did KS among others, “Hate to say it, but that 3 points at the end of the half looking pretty big right now.”
After 17 unanswered points, Pat Knotts had one eye on the game and the other on the phone to call 911, “Damm stop doing this I got ❤ issues” He is not the only Steelers fan to shave time off their life expectancy. We need those blow out wins going away.
SkoolHouseRoxx rocked with the “best” comment of the game:
“1. That game shouldn’t have been close.
2. We deserved to lose.
3. WE FRIGGIN 6-0!!! LET’S GO!!”
He added “Boz = $$$” His two field goals were the difference in winning outright or going into overtime to face a big dose of Derrick Henry. I’ll take the definite 6 and 0!
The Steelers played an almost immaculate first half. Then they decided to tease the fans with a putrid second half. The offense played consistently strong in the first half up until the interception to end the half. The offense moved the ball far enough to score a field goal to start the second. Then they were consistently weak until a clock eating final drive. Unfortunately, Ben threw his third interception instead of icing the game.
The defense inexcusably allowed a 73-yard catch and run to start the second half. That play gave life to the Titans chances. But they held the Titans to a field goal following Ben‘s second interception deep in their territory. The third interception almost proved too much as the defense gave way to a resurgent Titans attack.
Much like a Greek tragedy the very strength of our heroes; pursuit on defense and aggressiveness on offense almost proved to be their undoing. but the fates intervened to thwart the Titans final blow as a 45-yard kick sailed wide.
I do not know what would have happened in overtime, but as an average Steelers fan, I measure my pleasure in wins and the larger the margin of victory the better.
My main hero this week is the special teams. Chris Boswell’s field goal to start the second half proved to be difference in the game. Jordan Berry enjoyed lesser hero status. He out kicked his opposite number, who has an extraordinarily strong leg, putting both punts behind the 20. The punt return game kept the offense out of the hole and set up an easy score from the ten. The coverage units despite a penalty at the end kept the field position advantage tilted in the Steelers favor.
We had ‘em all the way
Many Burgher’s know this phrase has its origins with Bob Prince who called Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games back in the 1960s and 70s. He reserved it at times for comebacks. My favorites were with the Pirates down by a couple runs only to have walk off hit score the game winning runs. No excitement in his gravelly voice. Just a deadpan, “we had ‘em all the way.” Some games you could trace a hint of his inner emotions at an unexpected victory. To me, it symbolizes the uncertainty and insecurity after a team you have invested a lot of emotion into has played their hearts out to the final moment to secure the victory that the entire city can celebrate in.
Pittsburgh has enjoyed some great sports teams. Indeed, the Steelers of the 70’s are among the best. But Pittsburghers always have that inner doubt. The successive waves of immigrants who labored in mills and mines – not always sure how they fit into this great country. Those same industries ebbing away. A city looking to hold onto something steady as the livelihood they know slips away. It’s not cockiness. Its being the perpetual underdog that still has some bite. But that’s just me. An average Pittsburgh Steelers fan.
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
I always like to offer a music selection. To honor the clash of the Titans here is Rock the Casbah by who else but … The Clash.