Steelers defense is up to par, but weaknesses exposed in crucial Sunday win over Titans

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PITTSBURGH – Sunday was a trip home in a Steelers time machine. A cold and gray game in December between two teams with playoff aspirations. A defensive battle that included a lot of hard knocks and big plays. Songs of “Defense!” and “MVP!” for bag artist TJ Watt. Thousands of terrible towels swirling after each turnover forced by the Steelers defense.

Given their recent struggles, watching the Steelers defense take control of the second half of Sunday’s 19-13 win certainly felt like a trip back in time. A unit that had allowed 137 points in its last four games, the Steelers blanked the Titans’ offense in the second half. They forced a turnover on three consecutive drives, each turnover setting up a field goal from Chris Boswell. The Pittsburgh defense limited the Titans to just 1 of 4 red zone hits, including Joe Haden’s winning tackle against Nick Westbrook-Ikhine in Tennessee’s last practice. The day the Steelers needed their defense to measure up, they stuck it out while delivering promises for the final three weeks of the season.

“I think anytime you can get a touch of defensive play it’s going to change the momentum a bit, and that’s all we’re looking for,” said Watt, whose 1.5 sacks on Sunday are helping him out. surpass James Harrison for the franchise single. bag record for the season. “We’ve been looking for him all season, and we know the splashes are coming in droves, so I’m glad they’re coming at the right time right now.”

They weren’t perfect (more on that later), but the Pittsburgh defense has upped their game to face the moment. Most of the playoffs have already started, as the Steelers are one of nine AFC teams separated by a game or a half in the standings. But many other facets of Mike Tomlin’s squad have fallen short as of yet, and it would have cost the Steelers were it not for the Herculean effort in their defense.

Let’s take a look at the main issues for the Steelers on Sunday, which they’ll need to resolve if they are to be legitimate playoff contenders in the final three weeks of the regular season.

Racing game

The Pittsburgh running game is in worse shape now than it was when it finished last in the league in 2020. Sunday was a new low for the Steelers’ running game, as rookie Najee Harris n ‘managed to gain just 18 yards on 12 carries. As a team, the Steelers only gained 35 yards on 17 carries. In 14 games, the Pittsburgh offensive line has failed to consistently create clean running lanes.

“We didn’t think they would throw the ball at us,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said afterwards. “All of their races were jet sweeps, dazzling glares on the outside. I didn’t think the racing game would be a problem.”

A non-existent racing game impacts quite an offense. Much of this creates lopsided game sheets and allows defenses to focus on the passing game. It also makes possession of the ball difficult, as the Steelers controlled the ball for less than 21 minutes on Sunday.

How can the Steelers fix this? Their options are limited when it comes to this season. They could use rear Derek Watt more in race situations, but if they haven’t already, there’s no reason to think they will now. The only thing that could change is more reps for tackle Zach Banner and keeper / center JC Hassenauer, but it’s hard to imagine Tomlin making any drastic changes at the end of the season, even with the ongoing issues of the season. racing game.

Slow starts

Sunday marked the fourth straight game the Steelers failed to score a touchdown in the first half. The last time this happened in Pittsburgh was during the 1993-94 seasons. Pittsburgh’s nonexistent running game is certainly part of the problem, but the game calls could be better early in the game as well. The Steelers didn’t take a lot of deep shots early in games after enjoying some success earlier in the season. And they’ve strayed far from anything that could be considered a gimmicky game, especially in the early days of the game.

The Pittsburgh offense has sometimes waited too long for some of its playmakers, including Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth, to get involved in the offense. And what happened to Harris’ role in the passing game? The Steelers are likely watching his rate of use, but given their situation this season, Pittsburgh must consider doing whatever is necessary to resolve their scoring issues in the first half.

Special teams

Kicking off Sans Boswell, Pittsburgh had a tough day on special teams. Rookie Pressley Harvin III had punters 27 and 32 yards in the first quarter. His second punt was returned for 55 yards by Chester Rogers who established the Titans’ lone touchdown.

“The punter, he’s struggled this season,” Rogers said of his comeback. “He left the ball in the middle and got past his blanket.”

Much like the offensive line, there’s little the Steelers can do this season to improve this area of ​​their team. Scoring points certainly helps, as the Pittsburgh punt unit was only on the field once during the second half.

Running defense

As good as the defense is, it continues to give up a lot of yards on the ground. The Titans without Derrick Henry ran for 201 yards on 42 carries on Sunday. D’Onta Foreman did most of the damage with 108 yards on 22 carries. At times, Foreman and his fellow running back Dontrell Hilliard looked like the successful Cleveland running back combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

As Tomlin noted after the game, the Steelers did a better job playing down the big points compared to their Week 14 loss to Minnesota, when Dalvin Cook torched them for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Tomlin praised Fitzpatrick for downplaying the damage done by Foreman, Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols. Spread control, as Tomlin noted, needs to improve if the Steelers are going to clean up their run defense in the final three weeks of the season.

“The teams are going to be doing the same things from now on,” Heyward said. “If we don’t [improve], we’re going to be in a world of trouble. ”

What it all means

Sunday’s game was an important one for the Steelers, who likely had to win at least two of their last three regular-season games to have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. The defense have shown they can carry the offense by forcing turnovers and making key saves in the red zone. And while it wasn’t their best day, the Steelers offense, led by Ben Roethlisberger, played flawless football. Diontae Johnson became the Steelers ‘first 1,000-yard wide receiver since 2018, and Harris, despite Sunday’s struggles, more than justified the Steelers’ decision to pick him with the 24th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Maximizing previous strengths, finding new strengths and minimizing weaknesses is the key to end-of-season success. The Steelers did enough of those three things to win Sunday’s game, but they’ll need to do an even better job to accomplish these things in the final three weeks of the season. To what extent and how often they are able to do that, that will likely determine whether the Steelers play in the third week of January.

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