Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Five thoughts on Steelers 40, Titans 17

November 17, 2017 GMT

1. On their opening drive, the Steelers covered 75 yards on six plays and scored a touchdown on Ben Roethlisberger’s 41-yard pass to Antonio Brown in the end zone.

If it looked like the Steelers were going to toy with Tennessee, think again. This was a Dick LeBeau-coached defense against a Todd Haley-coached offense, and it quickly became clear who had the upper hand in that coordinator matchup.

The Steelers’ struggles continued in both the red zone and on third downs, as they all but abandoned their run game in playing a Thursday night game on three days’ rest.

As my Trib colleague Chris Adamski mentioned, a Major League starting pitcher wouldn’t be forced to play on such short rest.

2. Twice in the first half, the Steelers intercepted Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota and returned it into the red zone.

Twice, the Steelers settled for field goals.

Mike Hilton picked off a Mariota’s second pass attempt at midfield, returning it to the Tennessee 24. With a Marcus Gilbert facemask penalty, the Steelers turned a third-and-5 at the 8 into a third-and-20 at the 23. Roethlisberger overthrew tight end Jesse James in the end zone, and Chris Boswell kicked a 41-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead at 9:41 of the first quarter.

Late in the second quarter, Coty Sensabaugh — a former Titan making his first start for the Steelers, filling in for the injured Joe Haden — intercepted Mariota at the Steelers’ 48 and returned it 32 yards to the Titans’ 20.

After a first-and-goal at the 9, Roethlisberger took a 7-yard sack and that was followed by a false-start penalty. With a third-and-goal at the 21, Roethlisberger scrambled for 11 yards and Boswell added a 28-yarder goal to make it 13-7 with 1:37 left in the half.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 12 plays for 11 yards in 3:20 following two interceptions that set the table for the offense.

That’s just unacceptable for an offense with so much talent.

To their credit, the Steelers flipped the script on that story.

3. Martavis Bryant remains a mystery but made a major play.

The mercurial receiver didn’t play in the opening series, when the Steelers opened in the no-huddle offense. He was called for a pass-interference penalty on a deep ball, couldn’t pull in a pass in the end zone and bobbled another drop late in the second quarter.

Then, on the next play, he totally redeemed himself.

Roethlisberger hit Brown for a 19-yard gain, but Titans cornerback Adoree’ Jackson popped the ball loose. An alert Bryant recovered the fumble at the Tennessee 32, and the Steelers spiked it to stop the clock with 32 seconds remaining.

That set up Boswell’s 50-yard field goal to give the Steelers a 16-7 halftime lead, which would prove to be important points.

4. As dominant as the Steelers’ defense can be — and it accounted for five sacks for minus-42 yards and four interceptions — there has to be some concern about allowing the big play.

The Indianapolis Colts scored touchdowns on passes of 60 and 61 yards Sunday. The Titans started the second half with a 75-yarder from Mariota to Rishard Matthews, who had a step (or two) on Sensabaugh and slipped the tackle attempt by safety Robert Golden to cut it to 16-14.

The Steelers played without two starters in the secondary in Haden and free safety Mike Mitchell. They got a scare when defensive end Cameron Heyward went down with an injury at 11:53 of the fourth quarter. (Heyward would return for the next series).

This defense can be the catalyst, but it has to stay healthy if the Steelers want to go to the Super Bowl.

5. Somehow, the Steelers turned their failure into fortune.

After going 1-for-7 on third down in the first half, the Steelers switched that storyline and rewrote the script.

On a third-and-11 at the Titans’ 17, Roethlisberger found JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 12-yard gain to set up a 5-yard touchdown pass to Brown for a 23-14 lead.

On a third-and-10 at the Steelers’ 25, Roethlisberger found Bryant for a 20-yard gain down the left sideline. He connected on consecutive passes to Bell for 6 yards, Smith-Schuster for 18 and Bell for 9 to spark a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass to James to make it 30-17.

So, the Steelers surpassed the 30-point mark, solved their third-down and red-zone struggles and improved to 8-2 by beating the first-place team in AFC South by 23 points.

If you have a complaint about this one, save it for SkyCam.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.