The Pittsburgh Steelers held on to a 27-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans by the skin of their teeth.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans clashed on Sunday, marking only the fifth game in league history (in full seasons) where two 5-0 teams crossed paths. Mike Tomlin’s team dominated in the first half, building a 24-7 lead. Pittsburgh’s offense ground to a halt in the second half, but the defense managed to save the win.
The Titans were one Stephen Gostkowski field goal away from forcing overtime for the second straight week. With their momentum, Tennessee held an upper hand, but Gostkowski couldn’t connect. The Steelers advanced to 6-0 for the first time in the Tomlin era with their first game against the Baltimore Ravens looming in Week 8.
Stud: James Conner, RB
It’s a relief to know the Steelers have at least one running back capable of producing consistently. After a horrible opening week, Conner is averaging 4.97 yards per carry and 88.4 rushing yards per game. For reference, only five running backs entered Week 7 averaging over 80 yards per game. Conner is putting Pittsburgh’s running game on his back and is redeeming himself after a forgettable 2019 campaign.
Conner outproduced Henry on Sunday, recording 20 carries for 82 yards. It marks his fourth game this season with at least 80 rushing yards. For reference, Conner only had one game with over 80 yards in 2019 and five such games in his 2018 Pro Bowl campaign.
Entering 2020, I thought an extension for Conner was out of the question. Seven weeks into the season, I’m beginning to believe the two sides should start talking about a three-year deal. Of course, Conner avoiding injuries for the rest of the season is critical, but he’s played exceptionally well so far. If not for Conner’s performance, the Steelers wouldn’t have taken down Tennessee.
For the second week in a row, the Steelers committed far too many fouls. Perhaps the referees got flag happy in the second half, but that doesn’t excuse the Steelers putting themselves in poor positions. The majority of Pittsburgh’s penalties were avoidable and unnecessary. If not for Minkah Fitzpatrick committing a holding call or an offensive pass interference call with under three minutes remaining, Steelers fans might have avoided a lot of unnecessary stress.
Pittsburgh committed eight penalties on Sunday, costing the team 69 yards. That’s not too bad considering the Titans lost 73 yards on seven fouls. However, the timing of some of Pittsburgh’s calls almost altered the game’s outcome. It didn’t have to be as difficult as the Steelers made it.
Stud: Run defense
Entering Week 7, I thought Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill were two of the NFL’s top-five MVP candidates. While Russell Wilson had a clear lead, Henry and Tannehill were the league’s best running back-quarterback duo. Thankfully, Pittsburgh’s dominating defense mostly kept both stars contained, maintaining the second-half lead.
Despite giving up a 17-yard run to Henry, the Steelers held the 247 lb. running back in check for most of the game. The Alabama product finished Sunday with 20 carries for 75 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and a score. That’s his second-lowest rushing total this season. Henry opened the week averaging 117.6 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. Over Tennessee’s past three games, he averaged 5.8 yards per attempt and two touchdowns per game.
Henry became more active in the second half as Pittsburgh’s defense began to wear down. However, T.J. Watt and Vince Williams knifed into the backfield repeatedly while Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt occupied bodies upfront. There weren’t many holes for Henry to run through, and he got blasted backward on several occasions.
Maybe outside of Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh boasts the best run defense in the NFL.
Dud: Second half offense
The Steelers are lucky they torched Tennessee in the first half. Anything less and they would’ve lost the game. After unloading 24 points in the game’s opening 30 minutes, Pittsburgh only hit one field goal in the second half. The Steelers made several questionable play calls that let Tennessee climb back into the game and put themselves at a disadvantage.
Specifically, Pittsburgh elected to throw the ball on third and short as they drove inside Tennessee’s ten-yard line. The Steelers got close to the first down marker, but an offensive pass interference call pushed them back to 3rd & 12 from the 19-yard line. On the next play, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone. That’s just poor decision-making at every level.
Stud: Diontae Johnson, WR
With Chase Claypool making almost no impact against Tennessee, the Steelers needed another of their young receivers to step up. After missing Week 6 and battling injuries early in the year, Johnson had one of the best games of his career. The second-year receiver finished Sunday with nine receptions on 15 targets for 80 yards and two touchdowns. He missed some time toward the end of the game with another apparent injury.
Many Steelers fans believed Johnson would surpass JuJu Smith-Schuster as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 receiving threat this year. Instead, we’ve seen Claypool, Johnson, and Smith-Schuster share that mantle. While most teams need an All-Pro-caliber receiver to carve up defenses, the Steelers are finding success with their receiver-by-committee approach.
Smith-Schuster also had a good game against Tennessee. On 14 targets, the USC product made nine receptions for 85 yards. That sets a new high-water mark for this season and comes after he only made two catches in Week 6.
Roethlisberger threw three interceptions on Sunday. One of those turnovers came on a last-second bomb at the end of the first half and had no impact on the game. The second got swatted into the air at the line of scrimmage before landing in Jayon Brown’s hands. The third killed a Steelers drive that could’ve put the game out of reach.
In his first five games, Roethlisberger threw 11 touchdowns and only one interception. This turnaround came after he threw one interception in his limited action last season and a league-leading 16 interceptions in 2018. Unfortunately, that caution didn’t carry into Week 7.
Roethlisberger is 6-0 for the first time in his career, which wipes out his poor second half performance. However, Big Ben can’t get used to surviving games where he turns the ball over multiple times. The most impressive thing from Pittsburgh’s first five games was his ability to protect the ball. When ball security goes out the window and Roethlisberger turns into a gunslinger, things get ugly.