For a while now, we've been asking the real Pittsburgh Steelers to please stand up. It took 30 minutes on Thursday night, but finally they awakened. And when it happened, when all of the individual parts finally came together, it was everything we always wanted them to be: an explosion of points and GIF-worthy plays.
On a frigid Thursday night at Heinz Field, the Steelers improved to an impressive 8-2 with a two-faced 40-17 win against the now 6-4 Titans. In the first half, the Steelers resembled the team that disappointed us through the first 10 weeks of the season. In the second half, the Steelers morphed into the team we desperately craved through the first 10 weeks of the season: a team worthy of challenging the Patriots in the AFC.
Ben Roethlisberger finally threw the heck out of the football. Antonio Brown, per usual, did Antonio Brown things. For the first time all season, they scored 30 points! And the defense forced four turnovers. This version of this Steelers team is a foe that the rest of the NFL -- yes, including the Patriots -- will have to reckon with come January. It just remains to be seen if this version can be sustained.
It should be sustainable. Roethlisberger is 35, but he shouldn't have been playing as poorly as he had been until Thursday night. Brown is still the best receiver in the league. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the reliable No. 2 target that Martavis Bryant can't seem to become. Le'Veon Bell is still the best all-around back in football right now. And that defense is oozing young talent.
Maybe, just maybe, Thursday night marked a change in the Steelers' season. Maybe they turned the corner. Hopefully Thursday night won't an aberration, another what if. Because the NFL is a league lacking quality teams and it could use another one.
The Steelers didn't waste any time getting going. On the opening series, Roethlisberger went 4 of 5 for 71 yards. Forty-one of those yards came on a touchdown bomb to Brown after Roethlisberger used the hard count to earn a free play. Brown's ball skills remain superb.
This is the Steelers' passing game operating at its peak. Also, note the SkyCam and how we could actually see the play develop downfield. We knew that was a touchdown before Big Ben even released the ball.
Meanwhile, the Titans didn't waste any time ... giving the ball back to the Steelers. On their third play, Marcus Mariota missed an open receiver way high and by the time gravity brought the ball back down to Earth, Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton was waiting under it like he was fielding a punt.
Again, note the camera angle. We knew that Mariota's pass was doomed the second he released it.
The Steelers wound up kicking a field goal to take an early 10-0 lead. Then the Titans woke up, embarking on an 11-play, 68-yard drive that included a sick toe-drag catch by rookie Corey Davis ...
... and culminated with this Mariota touchdown run.
The Titans' mistakes began to piling up in the second quarter. First, there was a blocked field goal, which would've tied the game.
And then there was Mariota's second awful interception of the half. He misread the coverage (he probably thought he was facing zone, not man-to-man), stared down his target, and nearly threw a pick-six.
Once again, the Titans' defense held Pittsburgh to a field goal. The Titans' defense was doing its job. The offense and special teams weren't. At halftime, after another lengthy field goal, the Steelers led 16-7.
Actually, hold up. We can't gloss over that field goal, because that field goal was only possible due to a missed call. On the Steelers' scoring drive, Brown fumbled the ball forward, and that fumble was recovered by Bryant (remember him?). With under two minutes remaining in the half, the officialsto the point of the fumble. They didn't. As a result, the Steelers gained roughly 10 yards, which definitely helped on their 50-yard field goal.
So back to fumble, 84 fumbles is at about the 41, and is recovered by pit #10 at around the 32. Under two minutes or 4th down, only the fumbler can advance a fumble. The ball should have been brought back to the spot of the fumble— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) November 17, 2017
OK, onto the second half. The Titans, like the Steelers in the first half, got going immediately. On their first play from scrimmage, Mariota and Rishard Matthews hooked up for a 75-yard touchdown. Suddenly, in 11 seconds, the Titans turned a nine-point game into a two-point thriller.
It didn't last long. The Steelers' response? Their own 75-yard drive -- except they used 10 plays and 4:48 of game time. It ended with Brown's second touchdown.
The Titans should've answered with another touchdown, but normally reliable tight end Delanie Walker dropped a wide-open touchdown. They settled for a field goal, trimming the deficit to six points.
The Steelers, on the other hand, were done with field goals. They scored again, this time via
Le'Veon Bell Roethlisberger and tight end Jesse James after Bell had a touchdown ruled down at the 1-yard line due to an official review. Regardless of the source, the Steelers led by 13 points with nearly a full quarter to play. The lead grew to 20 points when Brown came down with his version of the helmet catch and as a result, KO'd the Titans' comeback chances.
Read on for seven takeaways.
1. Big Ben ain't dead yet
Entering Thursday night, Roethlisberger had been a massive disappointment. He'd thrown 12 touchdowns and 10 picks, and accumulated an 83.8 passer rating. Finally, against the Titans, he began to resemble the quarterback he once was.
In all, Roethlisberger went 30 of 45 for 299 yards, four touchdowns, no picks, and a 115.0 passer rating. He dodged sacks in the pocket in his typical hulking, ungraceful way. He sliced up the Titans' secondary with precise darts and anticipatory throws. And he actually didn't come close to throwing any interceptions.
Big Ben is permanently back! Maybe? Hopefully?
2. Antonio Brown is still amazing
No one ever doubted Brown like they doubted Big Ben -- and with good reason. Brown entered the game leading the league in receiving yards despite getting subpar quarterback play. He certainly benefited by his quarterback's resurgence.
Brown finished with 144 yards and three touchdowns on 10 receptions. In the process, he came down with one of the catches of the season.
To be clear, Brown is still better than the robot that will eventually end all of humanity.
Maybe Brown isn't even human. It's still not clear.
3. Need more Bell
Roethlisberger played well. Credit to him, though one of his touchdowns would've belonged to Bell if not for a nitpicky review that ruled him down at the one-inch line.
But the Steelers almost seem like they're trying to avoid giving the ball to their best player, Le'Veon Bell. For most of the first half, when the Steelers' offense grinded its way to 16 points, they relied on the passing game, which failed to do much of anything after that touchdown on the first series. For some reason, they refused to turn the slog of a game into a Bell game.
He finished with 46 yards on 12 carries (he also caught nine passes for 57 yards). I can't help but shake the feeling that the Steelers need to lean on Bell more than Ben when they need to beat say, I don't know, the Patriots in New England in January. Again, Roethlisberger played well. But Bell is still the team's best player. The Steelers should use him like that. They shouldn't be throwing the ball 45 times unless they're facing a huge deficit, which didn't happen on Thursday night.
4. Mariota's mistakes
It's not that Mariota played poorly. He made some good throws and scored a nice touchdown with his legs. But he made a few indefensible mistakes. He opened up the game by sailing a throw over an open receiver. His second interception, when he stared down a quick comeback, was even worse. His third interception came in desperation time, when he forced the football downfield. His fourth was what you would expect a fourth interception to look like.
His final stat line wasn't pretty: 22 of 33 for 306 yards, one touchdown, four picks, and a 66.8 passer rating.
The truth is, Mariota's failed to make the leap from good to great this season. Part of that is due to the coaching and play-calling. Part of that is due to his injuries. Part of that is due to Mariota himself. That doesn't mean Mariota won't ever become one of the league's next great quarterbacks -- for what it's worth, I'd still take him over Jameis Winston. And that doesn't mean the loss is entirely on Mariota. It's not.
It just means the Titans need more from their third-year quarterback if they're going to become a legitimate contender in the AFC.
5. The Titans' ground game stalled
Again, don't just blame Mariota. Also blame the running game, which was supposed to be one of the best ground attacks in football, but managed just 52 yards on 21 carries (2.5 yards per carry). DeMarco Murray averaged a whopping 1.3 yards per carry. Derrick Henry fared better, picking up 32 yards on seven carries, but hardly made a difference in the outcome.
The Titans were projected to be a playoff team due to their dominant ground game and ascending quarterback. Instead, they're likely a playoff team due to their soft schedule and a lack of decent teams in the NFL.
6. This Steelers' defense is even better than the offense
Instead of just ragging on the Titans for their offensive woes, let's give the Steelers' defense the credit it deserve. It held the Titans to 52 rushing yards and forced four turnovers. That'll work.
Steelers: 4 interceptions are their most in a game since Week 11 of 1997 against the Ravens— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 17, 2017
The Steelers' defense entered the game ranked fourth in DVOA. It showed why on Thursday night. And that defense will be a big reason why the Steelers will have a chance to beat a team like the Patriots in the playoffs.
The Steelers' defense has carried the offense all season long. Finally, it got some help with an explosive offensive showing. The result? A 40-17 win.
That'll also work.
7. What's next?
Favorable is the best way to describe the Steelers' upcoming slate of games. Next, they get the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers next (win), the Bengals (win), and the Ravens (win). Their only hard game remaining will come against the Patriots, which could decide home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their other opponents? The Texans and Browns. The Steelers are playoff bound.
As for the Titans, they also have a slate of winnable games on tap. They get the Colts next, then the Texans, Cardinals, 49ers, Rams (tough), and Jaguars. That Week 17 game could decide the AFC South with the loser entering the playoffs as a wild-card team. Regardless, the Titans appear to be playoff bound as well.
For a look at the complete NFL playoff picture, click right here.