The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and that is not debatable. They rush the passer, they stop the run, they’re well-coached and they play hard.
As such, the Steelers have made it a habit this season to defer when they win the coin toss, just so their defense can set the tone.
That didn’t happen in the Steelers’ 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
When the Steelers won the toss, Ben Roethlisberger elected to receive. Against a previously undefeated Tennessee team with a struggling defense, Pittsburgh’s future Hall of Fame quarterback wanted the football first.
Because he felt good about the opening script.
Because the Steelers could jump out early against a ball-control team.
Because they wanted to prove a point.
“I came into this game and told Coach [Mike] Tomlin, ‘We're going to take the ball, we're not going to defer,’” Roethlisberger explained afterward. “I told the guys last night: ‘This is what we're going to do. We're going to have the ball. Let's go down the field.’”
The reaction to this, given how good the Steelers’ defense has been?
“I think it shocked a lot of us,” Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said.
In a good way, it turns out. In this, the Steelers’ biggest road test thus far, Pittsburgh marched right down the field and scored a touchdown on their opening possession for the first time in nearly two years.
Those past opening struggles gnawed at Roethlisberger, evident in his tone.
“I think we scored on the opening drive, so everyone can stop talking about scoring on opening drives and things like that,” Roethlisberger said afterward, without a hint of laughter.
The Titans mounted a late comeback, only to shoot themselves in the foot by missing a tying field goal late. That they needed that bit of good fortune to win, especially after Roethlisberger set it up by throwing a red-zone interception, matters little to the Steelers. They improved to 6-0 for the first time since 1978 and, if history is any indication, must now be considered credible Super Bowl contenders. The ’78 group was the greatest of the “Steel Curtain” teams, a dynasty where Pittsburgh won four titles in six seasons.
Sunday’s showdown between the Titans and Steelers marked the fifth time in NFL history two undefeated teams met in Week 7 or later. The last four times it happened, the winner went to the Super Bowl, according to NFL Research.
The Steelers weren’t necessarily thinking about all that, but they were definitely happy to get the win.
“It feels good — obviously you want to be in this spot, you want to have these wins when you can,” Roethlisberger said.
Especially against Tennessee, and that is a largely unspoken reason why the win was so sweet.
Remember, the Steelers got screwed a few weeks ago because of the Titans’ COVID outbreak. This matchup should have been played in Week 4. However, because of the Titans’ rash of positive tests, the game was postponed and the schedule was switched around to accommodate it. (The NFL reportedly fined the Titans $350,000 for their COVID-19 safety protocols.)
One of the casualties of this was the Steelers’ previous bye week, originally scheduled for Week 7 and switched to Week 4, which the players spent preparing for a game they thought they were going to play.
I spoke to Smith-Schuster about this a few weeks ago, and though he followed the party line established by coach Mike Tomlin — “We do not care,” Tomlin said, flatly — NFL players love the bye week and view it as a chance to get away, something the Steelers didn’t do because the Titans didn’t follow COVID protocols. Pittsburgh veteran Cam Heyward expressed frustration with the situation.
So Sunday was, in many ways, a small bit of revenge, albeit one Pittsburgh won’t savor very long. Next Sunday, the Steelers again hit the road to face another AFC contender, this time in their own division. The showdown against a rough-and-tumble Baltimore team (5-1) will be the NFL’s game of the week and an opportunity for Pittsburgh to seize control of a division it hasn’t won since 2017.
To do so, they’ll need to play better against the Ravens, who are coming off a bye, than they did Sunday, when they lost the turnover battle 3-0 and let the Titans get back into the game.
Yet, it’s almost reassuring they still found a way to beat a really good team when they weren’t at their best.
That’s what really good teams, ones that become incredibly difficult to eliminate come playoff time in January, do.
And after proving a point against Tennessee on Sunday, they can prove an even bigger one next week.
“We feel we have a really good football team, we feel that it could be very special and we're happy with where we are right now,” Roethlisberger said. “But that's going to be a short-lived happiness because we know what's coming up next.”
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