After another exciting UFC fight card, here are the top five stories that really caught my attention.
To the casual fan, the first five minutes of Monday night’s Steelers-Titans match-up may have looked like another prime time blowout.
On their opening drive, Pittsburgh moved the football down the field with relative ease, before settling for a Suisham field goal. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s first play extended the Steelers lead to ten courtesy of a William Gay pick-six.
The stars were aligned for a black-and-gold whitewash, but Steelers fans, used to seeing their team time and again fail to put away lesser opposition, knew they were in for another rocky ride.
It all seemed to come to a head before half time, when Pittsburgh’s penchant for foolish turnovers on the road looked certain to be their demise in back-to-back plays.
After Ben Roethlisberger threw an awful red zone interception, William Gay misread a wideout streak for an eight-yard curl. With no safety help over the top, former Steeler Nate Washington not only scored, but was so open he began celebrating at the thirty-yard line.
The biggest play of the night could be partly blamed on a blown coverage and partly on Gay getting greedy, perhaps assuming that the rookie would call a few conservative plays before the half in an attempt to enter the locker room tied.
That two-play exchange was a microcosm for Pittsburgh’s road struggles this year. With the offense killing a promising chance for points, the defence suffered a brain snap, forcing Mike Tomlin and his men into a pressure second half. Fortunately, that load was handily dealt with through feature back Le’veon Bell, who had himself a career day on the road and, for at least a fortnight, keeps Pittsburgh in the thick of the AFC North division crown.
His 204 explosive yards on a monstrous 33 carries tell part of the story, but leave out the O-line’s run-blocking dominance. Seeing guards and tackles run pulls and traps all night long felt like witnessing a forgotten art in today’s NFL.
The interior three in particular were fantastic at clearing a lane just in time for Bell to get to the mass of bodies, make his read in his trademark patient style, and simply explode through, more often than not for a first down.
Speaking of stats not telling the whole truth, Big Ben’s five sacks on the night imply the pass protection left much to be desired. In reality, the Titans frequently sent six or more defenders on a bull-rush blitz in an attempt to cause as much disruption as possible. Couple that with a quarterback who loves to hold the ball, and there’s only so much the blockers can do.
Make no mistake, this was a night for running the ball. Cradling a precarious three-point lead, Pittsburgh had possession with half of the fourth quarter ahead of them, and the Titans offense never saw the field again.
Bell looked every bit a modern-day Bettis, the proverbial ‘closer’ for a team that had spent years in the purgatory of ‘running-back-by-committee’ before his heralded arrival. The drive was aided in no small part by a clutch Wheaton catch on a third down, but Bell handled the rest the way a top-three running back would be expected to.
The only flaw of a killer final drive came at the two-minute warning. With Bell having already earnt the game-icing first-down, maligned offensive coordinator Todd Haley turned from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, calling a run for a loss of two yards even though the Titans were out of timeouts.
Smarter heads prevailed afterwards, as the Steelers took two knees to secure the victory. The absurd call will be a non-issue due to the uneventfulness of the play, but the mob would’ve been out in force had Bell fumbled – or worse, sustained an injury.
That lapse in concentration should not go unnoticed by the rest of the coaching staff, hopefully setting the tone for a busy bye week in the ‘Burgh.