Winners and Losers: Steelers We Didn't Expect to Shine, Did

Heading into Week 7, the Pittsburgh Steelers had worries regarding injuries, playmakers and their opponent. They won Sunday because of those same reasons.
Publish date:

At times, you didn't know if the Pittsburgh Steelers were on their way to taking the first lead in the AFC or blowing a lead that would make headlines for maybe the rest of the season.

Somehow, the 5-0 Steelers moved to 6-0, behind a missed field goal by Stephen Gostkowski and a 24-7 lead that was just enough to keep them alive in Week 7.

The last undefeated team in the NFL now heads to Baltimore to face the Ravens, opening up as +5.5 underdogs on the road. Surprising? No. But after a win in Nashville, against a team many claimed would give them a run for their money - in a much less self-inflicted way - the Steelers feel pretty good about where they're at.

"We feel we have a really good football team, right? We feel that it could be very special and we're happy with where we are right now," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, "but that's going to be a short lived happiness because we know what's coming up next."


JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson

For the first time this season, both of the Steelers' top two receivers had themselves a day. Smith-Schuster finished with nine receptions for 85 yards while Johnson caught nine passes for 80 yards and two scores.

This isn't a selfish receiving core, and therefore, having breakout games is expected from each of them. On a weekly basis, the top pass-catcher goes from Chase Claypool to James Washington, Smith-Schuster, and this week, Johnson.

"They wasn't trying to get nothing up top. They were trying a lot of Tampa 2, a lot of deep, two safeties in the back, trying to keep everything in front of them," Smith-Schuster said. "And with that being said, Diontae backs out one-on-one, we're throwing everything short. Me playing on front side, everything that's short. And that's the kind of game it was. Not every game is going to be a home run, but, hey, it is what it is. And like I said, you just never know whose turn it is to ball every week."

It's not a "here we go, they're finally clicking" statement. This offense is built off finding the holes of the defense. One week Smith-Schuster is fighting all the double-teams underneath, and one week, Claypool and Washington and the focal point of a secondary as they attempt to stop the long ball.

This week, the Titans shut down anything over the top. As they did, they let the Steelers' top two receivers work underneath.

Robert Spillane/Cam Sutton

Has all the "find a starting inside linebacker" talk stopped now? Because it should've the second Robert Spillane took off up the middle and met Derrick Henry at the goal line.

"They're on the one-yard line. They got a 250-pound running back. There's no going slow into the hole," Spillane described the tackle. "So I took all my force with me and T.J. (Watt) was there to help as well and we were able to bring him down."

Spillane and Cam Sutton stepped into filler roles this week, replacing two of the best players on the Steelers' defense. Right from the jump, they made an impact, with Spillane opening the game with Pittsburgh's first tackle and Sutton batting down the first third-down pass of the afternoon.

"[Spillane] played winning ball," Tomlin said. "I hadn't looked at it with a fine-tooth comb. But like we said, even prior to this performance, we weren't concerned about the quality of his play. I definitely was not."

Sutton has been around long enough to understand he's a member of this defense, even if he doesn't start. His impact is felt most weeks, so when he stepped in for Mike Hilton, he looked comfortable.

Spillane is a newbie that everyone talked highly about - including Sutton. He finished the game with three tackles and the biggest hit of Week 7.

When he met Henry and didn't let him score, everyone should've looked to the person next to them and said, "ok, I trust him."

Rush Defense

I don't know how many more times the Steelers' defense has to shut down one of the best running backs in the NFL before the week leading up to the game isn't about them being worried about a top rushing attack.

First, it was Saquon Barkley, and everyone made excuses about the Giant's offensive line. Next, it was Melvin Gordon and David Johnson. Then, Kareem Hunt, which ended all hopes for the Cleveland Browns.

This week, it was the league's top rusher and a player coming off a 200-yard performance. And yet again, the Steelers held him under 100 yards.

Henry finished with 20 rushes for 75 yards and a touchdown on what was not an easy day for him. In the first half, he had 27 yards, starting the conversation of how much the Titans can lean on him in the second half.

It's time to stop doubting the Steelers' defense and begin turning those headlines into worry for the opposing running back. Their new standard is shutting down anyone in the backfield.


Second Half Clock Management

It's hard to tell if it was Ben Roethlisberger's change in mentality from conservative to superman or Randy Fichtner's classic four-minute offense in the third quarter, but the Steelers' offense nearly gave Week 7 away.

It's been a constant battle of great play-calling and flashbacks to 2018 and the 3rd and 10 screen era for the Steelers. One week, we're praising Fichtner and his new partner in crime Matt Canada. The next, everyone is freaking out about slants being run on 3rd and long.

"Felt like we must have run a hundred plays. But that's what happens," Roethlisberger said. "I think the first half ... I haven't looked at any numbers, to be honest with you, so typically the reason that drives last that long are because you're converting third downs, and I know we had some third down conversions in the first half that we didn't quite do in the second half. We would like to have a complete game, we would like to have a second half like that first half, but they're a professional team, they make adjustments and they made some and I didn't make enough plays in the second half."

Second half play-calling, along with a number of factors, nearly cost the Steelers their perfect record. In the future, they likely won't have a 17-point cushion to work with.

Minkah Fitzpatrick

The week after his first pick-six of the season, Minkah Fitzpatrick struggled.

He and Steven Nelson allowed Titans' wide receiver A.J. Brown to take off for a 73-yard touchdown over the middle. Then, he followed it up with a holding penalty on the goal line the play after Spillane stuffed Henry.

This defense operates at its best when Fitzpatrick is playing great football. A high safety who can control the field from the top, which allows everyone else to play more comfortable upfront.

This week, it was not the case. It wasn't his worst game, but it wasn't his best. And it showed.

Ben Roethlisberger

The perfect season Roethlisberger was having made a sharp 180-degree turn at halftime. Whether it was his end of the second quarter interception or the confidence that comes with a 24-7 lead, the Steelers quarterback quickly became the gunslinging cowboy he's been in years past.

"The one at the end of the half, we kind of threw it up and the guy made a play," Roethlisberger said on his interceptions. "It's kind of one of those plays that happens. And then the last one was, I'll take my -- I'll take JuJu down the middle on a linebacker. I've just got to get it about six inches higher on his back shoulder. And you don't expect the ball to get tipped up in the air and intercepted. You hope it falls incomplete, but they intercepted it and that's on me."

For the first time this season, Roethlisberger put more faith in his arm than his brain. He was forcing passes, making hero throws and trying to win a game that was virtually already won.

It was good to see him feel comfortable with his arm. This was the first time all season that he didn't shy away from passes and took some risks. Unfortunately, those risks turned into three interceptions and almost cost the Steelers the game. 

Noah Strackbein is a Publisher with AllSteelers. Follow Noah on Twitter @NoahStrack, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.