PITTSBURGH -- Sunday was a trip back into a Steelers time machine. A cold, gray December game between two teams with playoff aspirations. A defensive battle that included plenty of hard hits and big plays. Chants of "Defense!" and "MVP!" for sack artist T.J. Watt. Thousands of Terrible Towels swirling after each turnover forced by the Steelers' defense.
Given their recent struggles, watching the Steelers' defense take over the second half of Sunday's 19-13 win certainly felt like a trip back in time. A unit that had allowed 137 points in its past four games, the Steelers shut out the Titans' offense in the second half. They forced a turnover on three consecutive drives, with each turnover setting up a Chris Boswell field goal. Pittsburgh's defense held the Titans to just 1 of 4 red-zone efficiency that included Joe Haden's game-winning tackle of Nick Westbrook-Ikhine on the Tennessee's final drive. On day when the Steelers needed their defense to rise to the occasion, they delivered while offering promise for the season's final three weeks.
"I think anytime you can get a splash of defensive plays, it's going to change the momentum a little bit, and that's all we are looking for," said Watt, whose 1.5 sacks on Sunday help him surpass James Harrison for the franchise's single-season sack record. "We've been looking for it all season, and we know splash comes in bunches so just glad it's coming at the right time right now."
They weren't perfect (more on that later), but Pittsburgh's defense elevated its level of play to meet the moment. The playoffs have essentially already begun, as the Steelers are one of nine AFC teams that are separated by one or a half-game in the standings. But many other facets of Mike Tomlin's team did not rise to the moment, and it would have cost the Steelers if not for their defense's Herculean effort.
Let's look at the Steelers' main issues on Sunday, which they will need to address if they are going to be legitimate playoff contenders over the regular season's final three weeks.
Pittsburgh's running game is in worse shape now than it was when it finished last in the league in 2020. Sunday was a new low for the Steelers' running game, as rookie Najee Harris managed to gain just 18 yards on 12 carries. As a team, the Steelers gained just 35 yards on 17 carries. Through 14 games, Pittsburgh's offensive line has not been able to create clean running lanes on a consistent basis.
"We didn't think they'd run the ball on us," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said afterward. "All their runs were jet sweeps, razzle dazzles on the outside. Didn't think that the run game would be an issue."
Mike Vrabel said he wasn’t surprised at the Titans’ success against Najee Harris and Pittsburgh’s rushing attack. pic.twitter.com/gFzHcglMnN— BryanDeArdo (@BryanDeArdo) December 19, 2021
A nonexistent running game impacts an entire offense. Largely, it creates unbalanced play sheets and allows defenses to focus on the passing game. It also makes it hard to possess the ball, as the Steelers controlled the ball for less than 21 minutes on Sunday.
How can the Steelers fix this? Their options are limited as far as this season is concerned. They could use fullback Derek Watt more in running situations, but if they haven't done that yet, there's no reason to think that they will now. The only thing that could change is more reps for tackle Zach Banner and guard/center J.C. Hassenauer, but it's hard to fathom Tomlin making any drastic changes this late in the season, even with the running game's ongoing issues.
Sunday marked the fourth consecutive game where the Steelers failed to score a touchdown in the first half. The last time that happened in Pittsburgh was during the 1993-94 seasons. Pittsburgh's nonexistent running game is certainly part of the problem, but play-calling could also be better during the game's early stages. The Steelers haven't taken many deep shots early in games after having success earlier in the season. And they've largely strayed way from running anything that could be considered a gadget play, especially in the game's opening moments.
Pittsburgh's offense has at times waited too long to get some of its playmakers, most notably Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth, involved in the offense. And what happened to Harris' role in the passing game? The Steelers are probably keeping an eye on his usage rate, but given where they are in the season, Pittsburgh has to consider doing whatever is necessary in order to fix its first-half scoring issues.
Sans Boswell's kicking, Pittsburgh had a rough day on special teams. Rookie Pressley Harvin III had first-quarter punts of 27 and 32 yards. His second punt was returned 55 yards by Chester Rogers that set up the Titans' only touchdown.
"The punter, he's been struggling this season," Rogers said of his big return. "He left the ball in the middle and outkicked his coverage."
Like the offensive line, there's not much the Steelers can do this season to improve this area of their team. Scoring points certainly helps, as Pittsburgh's punting unit was on the field just one time during the second half.
As great as the defense was, it continues to give up a lot of yards on the ground. The Derrick Henry-less Titans rushed for 201 yards on 42 carries on Sunday. D'Onta Foreman did most of the damage with 108 yards on 22 carries. At times, Foreman and fellow running back Dontrell Hilliard resembled Cleveland's successful running back combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
As Tomlin noted after the game, the Steelers did a better job minimizing big runs as opposed to their Week 14 loss in Minnesota, when Dalvin Cook torched them for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Tomlin praised Fitzpatrick for minimizing the damage created on runs by Foreman, Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols. Gap control, as noted by Tomlin, has to get better if the Steelers are going to clean up their run defense over the season's final three weeks.
"Teams are going to do the same things from here on out," Heyward said. "If we don't [improve], we're going to be in a world of trouble."
What it all means
Sunday's game was a big one for the Steelers, who likely needed to win at least two of their final three regular-season games to have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs. The defense showed that it can carry the offense by forcing turnovers and coming up with key stops in the red zone. And while it wasn't their best day, the Steelers' offense, led by Ben Roethlisberger, played mistake-free football. Diontae Johnson became the Steelers' first 1,000-yard receiver since 2018, and Harris, despite Sunday's struggles, has more than justified the Steelers' decision to pick him with the 24th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Maximizing prior strengths, finding new strengths, and minimizing weaknesses is the key to having success late in the season. The Steelers did enough of those three things to win Sunday's game, but they'll have to do an even better job accomplishing those things over the season's final three weeks. How well and how often they are able to do that will likely determine whether the Steelers will be playing into the third week of January.