From the very start of their 27-24 Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans, the Pittsburgh Steelers set an old-school tone and kept with it. They ran on every play in their opening drive, giving the ball to second-year back Le'Veon Bell over and over, winding up with a 49-yard Shaun Suisham field goal. On the Titans' subsequent drive, rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw a pick-six on an aborted outside route to Justin Hunter, and William Gay had the 100th interception return for a touchdown in Steelers history.
Bell ran 33 times for 204 yards, trucking the Titans' game defense over and over, and he was the difference-maker for an offense that had seemed to be pass-heavy for a good reason recently. After throwing six touchdown passes against the Colts on Oct. 26, and doing the same against the Ravens on Nov. 2, Ben Roethlisberger threw for just one touchdown in a surprise loss to the Jets last Sunday, and just one in this game. The Steelers' franchise quarterback took a while to diagnose Tennessee's blitzes. He was sacked five times and hit several more. But in the end, Big Ben was able to deal with the pressure, and it was his 12-yard pass to Antonio Brown with 9:01 left in the game that ultimately decided the contest.
"The offensive line did a great job opening holes," Bell said after the game. "I was just able to get to the second level and make guys miss, keep my feet moving and try to get first downs. When we were down by 11, we didn't want to get away from our gameplan. You'll see sometimes that teams get into a mold where they feel they have to pass the ball to get into it. We stuck to our gameplan."
That they did. The Titans were actually up 24-13 late in the third quarter when Mettenberger hit tight end Chase Coffman with a high end zone throw. But the Steelers had faith in their approach, and Bell, who ran for more yards than any other Steelers back in Monday Night Football history, was able to make that work with tremendous speed, power, and patience.
Three more thoughts from Monday's game:
1. Antonio Brown may be the best receiver in football
You can talk about Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson and on and on, but Antonio Brown might just be the NFL's best at what he does. Brown isn't just fast. He has incredible route awareness, can adjust to any coverage and has a special gift for syncing up with his quarterback. With nine catches for 91 yards against the Titans, Brown raised his league-leading total to 88 catches, and there doesn't seem to be any defense that can consistently cover him.
2. Ray Horton's plan is starting to come together, but it's not quite there yet
The Titans defensive coordinator is a disciple of Steelers defensive coordinator and Hall-of-Famer Dick LeBeau. He worked under LeBeau from 2005 through 2010. Horton has taken LeBeau's petri dish of blitzes to a new level, especially in this game. Over and over, Horton blitzed more and more defenders against Roethlisberger, and it worked because of two things. Roethlisberger was uncharacteristically off on several throws, and Tennessee's defensive backs excelled in the one-on-one coverage that such blitzes create. Horton's schemes worked in Arizona in 2011 and 2012, because he had the players to fit his one-gap, variable-scheme system. In Cleveland last season not so much, because things didn't work together. But Horton does have some serious horses in Tennessee's defense, starting with defensive lineman Jurrell Casey. The USC alum is one of the more disruptive tackles in the game, and Horton will use him everywhere from the nose position to stand-up outside linebacker depth.
Horton's gap structures and blitzes tend to leave things open for opponent rushing games, and that's been true this season. The Titans have been well below average in short-yardage run defense, and they struggle to keep things together. If they can reverse those integrity issues, they'll have something to build on.
3. Zach Mettenberger might be Ken Whisenhunt's answer at quarterback
In Ken Whisenhunt's last 57 games as a head coach, he's had nine different starting quarterbacks, and none for more than seven straight games. Mettenberger is the team's third starting quarterback this season, and while it's early to say that the sixth-round rookie from LSU is in a position to give Whisenhunt some stability at the position for the first time since the coach had Kurt Warner at Arizona, Mettenberger did show some things that he can build on. He's got an outstanding arm, and he beat Pittsburgh's defense over and over on deep plays, completing 15 of 24 passes for 263 yards, two touchdowns and that one crucial pick. It was the most yards ever amassed by a rookie quarterback in Monday Night Football history. The best play came with 32 seconds left in the first half, when Mettenberger got his own back against Gay by throwing a hook-and-go to former Steelers receiver Nate Washington, beating Gay for an 80-yard touchdown.
Mettenberger has some things to work on. He doesn't always read defenses well just yet, and his elongated delivery is an issue at times. But he has potential, and the Steelers certainly saw that on Monday night. Sadly for the 2-8 Titans, it was too little, too late.