It could be argued that the difference in the game was Ben Roethlisberger avoiding turnovers, and Marcus Mariota did not. Roethlisberger wasn’t perfect, but it’s hard to be perfect when throwing 45 passes. He completed 30 — and that was with a handful of drops. Put simply, if he’s this good the rest of the season, the Steelers will be more than OK.
Similar to their quarterback, the miscues (re: drops) were bad but more than made up for across the board. After three weeks of mediocre statistical outings, Antonio Brown was All Pro-like again, almost outdoing his production from the previous three weeks combined. In his final game as someone not legally allowed to drink, JuJu Smith-Schuster continued to show he’s the real deal. Martavis Bryant overcame a drop to make a big catch. Jesse James had five catches and a touchdown. And while you might have thought Le’Veon Bell had an off day in which the Steelers de-emphasized him, he ended up with 103 yards from scrimmage.
Offensive line: B-
Not the cleanest effort. Roethlisberger was subjected to three sacks and being hit two other times, and on three other occasions a ballcarrier was tackled in the backfield. But coach Mike Tomlin would call it “a winning effort.” If an offense gets 40 points, the line must have had good outing, particularly under the circumstances of a short week and the pass-heavy gameplan. But that doesn’t excuse a pair of penalties from the unit on third down plays.
Defensive line: A
Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt probably are the best pair of starting 3-4 defensive ends in the league. They played like it Thursday, combining for three sacks and two quarterback hits while acting as the front men for a defense that allowed just 52 rushing yards on 21 carries. Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton contributed with aplomb, too.
The defense on whole was plagued by missed tackles in the first half, but they broke out of that as the game went on. The outside linebackers didn’t generate enough pressure, but T.J. Watt made a play in pass coverage as well as one on special teams. Vince Williams had another sack (his sixth of the season and fifth over the past six games). Ryan Shazier was everywhere, as usual.
A tough grade because of the 75-yard touchdown allowed — their third of at least 60 yards over the past five days. Too many missed tackles, too. But it’s tough to fault a unit that had four interceptions, particularly when it was almost perfect on third downs over the final 21⁄2 quarters.
Special teams: B
The blocked field goal is the type of “splash” Danny Smith and his boys want to be known for. Chris Boswell was 4 for 4 on field goals and 4 for 9 on touchbacks on kickoffs (the Titans did have one long return). There was even a nice punt return by the fair-catch-keen Brown.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Steelers had an effective way to attack a Dick LeBeau defense. Their defense also appeared well-prepared to stifle and confound Mariota. The short week provides its challenges for both teams, so it’s not necessarily fair to assert that Tomlin and his assistants did a better job navigating them than Mike Mularkey and his staff did. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth noting.
Allowing another long passing play was alarming. But that’s the only major nitpick after the Steelers dispatch a first-place team for their fifth consecutive win. Thursday arguably was the lone non-New England roadblock standing between the Steelers and a No. 1 seed and, perhaps, a 14-2 record. And the Titans were made to appear noncompetitive for much of the game. The Steelers were far from a perfect 7-2 team — and they’re not the best 8-2 team in NFL history, either. But what they are is the only 8-2 team in the NFL at the moment. And that’s plenty good enough for them.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.