Mike Tomlin, to the surprise of many, decided to receive the opening kickoff after the Steelers won the coin toss at the start of Sunday's game against the Titans. Tomlin's team rewarded his decision by recording a 16-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Ben Roethlisberger's 11-yard touchdown pass to receiver Diontae Johnson. The score was the first of four consecutive scoring drives by the Steelers, who built a 20-point lead before they held on for a 27-24 victory.
Tomlin, whose team improved to 6-0 and are now the NFL's only undefeated team, was extremely transparent when asked about his decision to give his offense the ball to start Sunday's game.
"We wanted to answer all the questions from you guys about how we start the game," Tomlin said. "And so, we took the ball, we went down the field and scored a touchown so you guys can stop asking me about it."
The questions Tomlin eluded to was the byproduct of the Steelers failing to score a touchdown on their opening drive for 23 straight games, which stood as the league's longest drought before Pittsburgh finally ended it Sunday in Nashville. The last time the Steelers had scored on their opening possession prior to Sunday was in Week 15 of the 2018 season, when Pittsburgh defeated the Patriots at home, 17-10.
"Everyone can stop talking about scoring on the opening drive," said Roethlisberger, who went 10-of-12 passing on Pittsburgh's opening drive. "I came into this game and told coach Tomlin, 'We're going to take the ball. We're not going to defer.'"
Roethlisberger said that the decision to receive the opening kickoff also had something to do with Sunday's opponent.
"It was a combination of feeling good about the script, but also knowing that they're a team that lives on time of possession, playing from the lead," Roethlisberger said of the Titans. "We wanted to take the ball and do whatever we could do score and give our defense a leg up in terms of what [the Titans] may do on offense."
On Sunday, Roethlisberger completed a season-high 32 passes to seven different teammates. Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a combined 18 passes for 165 yards. Tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald combined to catch eight passes for 64 yards, while James Conner, who amassed 111 all-purpose yards, caught three passes that included an 18-yard pass that set up the first of Chris Boswell's two field goals.
"A lot of guys caught passes today," Roethlisberger said. "And that's what we specialize in. That's what this team is about, is everyone being involved. I don't even know how many catches Chase [Claypool] had, but it didn't feel like he even did a lot today. But everyone was involved. Everyone made plays. And that's what's fun, is what we've got a lot of guys that can contribute to us winning."
Claypool, the Steelers' rookie receiver, caught just one pass (his only target of the game) for minus two yards. He spent his afternoon being blanketed by Malcolm Butler, the Titans' No. 1 cornerback. And while it was clear that the Titans were intent on not allowing Claypool (whose six total touchdowns through six games leads all NFL rookies) to make a statistical impact on Sunday's game, Claypool still found a way to help his team. Claypool, along with helping spread the field for the rest of his teammates, forced Butler to commit a pass inference penalty during the first drive of the second half. The 21-yard penalty helped set up Boswell's second field goal which turned out to be the game's deciding three points.
Pittsburgh's early success was largely due to their ability to convert on third down. Facing the league's 32nd ranked third-down defense, the Steelers converted on all but one of their first nine third-down situations and were 13-of-18 for the game on third down. The Steelers also scored touchdowns on three of their five trips inside the red zone.
While starting fast and converting on third down wasn't an issue, the Steelers did struggle to take care of the ball against a Titans defense that is currently second in the NFL in interceptions forced. Roethlisberger, who threw just one interception during Pittsburgh's first five games, threw three interceptions on Sunday that included two picks in the second half. The interceptions contributed to the Steelers' offense coming up empty on their final four possessions.
Pittsburgh's defense, however, was able to come up with just enough plays (none bigger than Stephon Tuitt's pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill that resulted in an intentional grounding penalty on the Titans' final possession) to preserve the win.
"It wasn't always pretty," Roethlisberger said of Sunday's performance. "There were times that it was. Three interceptions is unaccapble on my part. I need to clean it up and be better. The defense came through in the end. Everything played itself out ... At the end of the day, we got a win against a really good football team at their place."
Roethlisberger is confident that he and his teammates are indeed capable of finishing strong after a fast start. Big Ben and company will try to do just that on Sunday, when the Steelers, who are undefeated this late in a season for the first time since 1978, head to Baltimore to take on the defending two-time defending AFC North champion Ravens.
"We feel that we have a really good football team," Roethlisberger said. "We feel that it could be special. We're happy with where we are right now, but that's going to be a short-lived happiness because we know what's coming up next."