NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Steelers wouldn’t let the unthinkable happen two weeks in a row.
Down 11 points to the slumping Tennessee Titans in the fourth quarter Monday night and in danger of losing their second in a row to a team with a poor record, the Steelers scored two touchdowns in less than six minutes for a potentially season-saving 27-24 victory at LP Field.
Le’Veon Bell ran for a career-high 204 yards and the first touchdown of the comeback nine seconds into the fourth quarter, and Ben Roethlisberger turned a play-action fake to Bell into a 12-yard scoring pass to Antonio Brown for the second at 9:01.
Roethlisberger went through an up-and-down game, going 21 of 32 for 207 yards, but he also turned what was looking to be a third Steelers loss this season to a bad team into a dramatic win they can carry into their bye week.
“We had to win,” right guard David DeCastro said, then said it again for emphasis. “We had to win … after last week (losing to the New York Jets) and going into the bye, we had to win.”
In barely a month’s time, the Steelers have had a 500-yard passer (Roethlisberger with 522 yards against the Indianapolis Colts) and a 200-yard runner. Bell’s 204 yards were the fourth most in team history, trailing only Willie Parker (223 and 213 yards in 2006) and Frenchy Fuqua (218 in 1970).
“When he’s running like that, carrying guys, carrying defensive backs and linebackers, it’s a wonderful feeling,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “A lot of people in the locker room said that’s the old Steelers ball.”
It wasn’t the Steelers ball of only a couple of weeks ago, when Roethlisberger put up 862 yards in two games.
“We want to be a group that’s capable of stepping into a stadium and throwing with anybody in the league and a team that’s capable of stepping into a stadium and running with anybody in the NFL,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
Antonio Brown caught nine passes for 91 yards and a touchdown but was as pleased with the running game as anyone, saying, “We knew this team was giving up big chunks in the run game (the Titans were No. 29 against the run), and we wanted to capitalize on it.”
“A few times we ran the same play back to back to back,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “We knew it was working.”
Several Steelers linemen said they especially wanted to win for offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who was fired as Titans coach after three seasons and three decades with the organization. The Steelers outrushed the Titans, 206-49.
“He doesn’t say much, but he had a little smirk on his face,” Foster said.
Instead of being 6-5 and in last place in the AFC North, the Steelers are 7-4 and just behind the Cincinnati Bengals (6-3-1) for the division lead. The Steelers don’t play again until Nov. 30 against the New Orleans Saints at Heinz Field.
“We are a resilient team,” DeCastro said.
Even on a night when the Steelers jumped to a 10-0 lead less than five minutes into the game, there was a lot for them to overcome. Somehow they did against the Titans (2-8), who lost their eighth in nine games. It’s something the Steelers couldn’t do last week in losing to the Jets (2-8) or earlier to Tampa Bay (2-8).
Roethlisberger was under pressure all night from a Ray Horton-coached defense that sacked him five times, and he threw a bad pass that led to a potential 14-point swing in the final minute before halftime. With Roethlisberger driving the Steelers to a score that would have upped their 13-10 lead, he threw an underthrown pass toward Brown that Jason McCourty intercepted for a touchback.
“It was a bad play on my part. AB beat the corner, and I didn’t put enough on it,” Roethlisberger said. “We weren’t on the same page, and very rare him and I aren’t.”
On the next play, former Steelers receiver Nate Washington fooled William Gay with a hitch-and-go — Gay bit on the hitch — for an 80-yard touchdown and a 17-13 Titans lead.
Rookie Zach Mettenberger (15 of 24, 263 yards, two TDs), clearly not rattled after being intercepted by Gay for a 28-yard pick-six on his first throw, led a 77-yard drive in the third quarter culminated by a 4-yard throw to journeyman tight end Chase Coffman, his first in six seasons. Coffman caught three passes on the drive — one more than he had all season — as the Titans led 24-13.
The Steelers’ leaky pass defense was exploited all night by Mettenberger, who still hasn’t won an NFL game — Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau now is 19-2 against rookie QBs.
Earlier, Shaun Suisham’s 49-yard field goal on the Steelers’ first drive and Gay’s second touchdown of the season put them up 10-0 with only 4:23 gone. Tennessee got back into the game with rookie Bishop Sankey’s 9-yard TD run on their first extended possession. Suisham and Ryan Succop then traded field goals ahead of Washington’s long TD catch.
Right about then, the Steelers must have wondered if they’d watched their season be stolen by two bad teams. But they turned around just in time and stole one.
“Now it’s five games of the best football of your life,” Roethlisberger said he told his teammates.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.