Some day, the Steelers could talk about playing the Tennessee Titans on a Thursday night as the breakthrough game of a Super season.
That storyline inevitably will turn toward Ben Roethlisberger’s halftime challenge of an underachieving offense that had struggled to convert on third downs, in the red zone or put 30 points on the scoreboard.
To take nothing away from the narrative of Big Ben’s outspoken show of leadership in the locker room, it wasn’t so much about what he said as what followed.
The Steelers flipped that script, turning their failures into fortune in a runaway 40-17 victory over the Titans at Heinz Field.
It was all so sudden and unexpected, especially against a Titans defense led by legendary zone-blitz guru Dick LeBeau.
“I think you can call this a breakout game in terms of points, but I still think that we’re going to look at this and say, ‘Man, we left a lot out there,’ ” said Roethlisberger, who completed 20 of 23 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
“I’m going to give them credit. That’s a Coach LeBeau defense. They stopped us a lot on third downs and stopped us in the red zone. Was it our best game? No. Was it better? Yeah.”
The Steelers scored on their opening drive, making it look so easy when Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a 41-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead.
But then reality hit: Twice, the defense delivered interceptions returned inside the Tennessee 25. Twice, the Steelers’ offense failed to score touchdowns.
Their faults in the red zone were covered by Chris Boswell, who booted field goals of 41 and 28 yards. But there was no hiding their difficulties on third down.
“They’re huge,” Roethlisberger said, “any time you’re moving the chains, keeping the flow going and keeping the rhythm going.”
Yet the Steelers failed to convert on their first five third-down attempts, until just before the two-minute warning before the half.
But Big Ben didn’t just deliver a halftime speech, he backed it up with big pass plays. On a third-and-11 at the Titans’ 17, he connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 12-yard gain that set up a 5-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. On the next possession, Roethlisberger hit Martavis Bryant on a third-and-10 for 20 yards, extending a drive capped by a scoring pass to Jesse James.
“Every third down is critical,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to make those plays to keep the ball moving. Guys made the plays. We kept the ball moving and got into the red zone and started scoring, so everything is big on third down. When third down presents itself, we’ve got to go out and make plays.”
The Steelers did a better job of that after halftime. After going 1 for 7 on third downs and 0 for 2 in the red zone in the first half, they converted 3 of 5 in both statistics in the second half.
It’s no coincidence that the Steelers also crossed the 30-point threshold — once a stated per-game goal — for the first time this season.
“I think we all kind of felt we were doing some good things,” Roethlisberger said. “We were on the verge, you know. Winning the football game is obviously most important, but to be able to put points on the board and to be able to capitalize on some of the defense’s turnovers — we’d like to capitalize on all of them — meant a lot. But it feels good to get those points and score in the red zone.”
Almost as good as it feels to be 8-2 at this point of the season, the Steelers’ best start under Mike Tomlin.
This was an important win, not just because the Steelers beat the Titans but how they beat them.
The Steelers solved three of their biggest issues on offense, not just because of what their quarterback said at halftime but how they answered his challenge.