Styles make matchups. And Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel entered Week 7 determined to give the viewing public the matchup they craved: Derrick Henry and the Titans’ bulldozing rushing attack against Pittsburgh’s dominant defensive front.
Henry entered the game as the first running back in NFL history to rush for more than 200 yards in three successive games. But it was an overreliance on Henry on Sunday that saw the Titans stall.
Vrabel is a savvy tactician, unafraid of bucking football orthodoxy. As the league has shifted to a pass-only league, Vrabel is leaning into a wide-zone-based, ground attack.
The Titans’ formula for success this season has been simple: Henry thuds into the line, beating up the defensive front or charging past it; the passing game is built around play-action attack; a feisty defence focuses on forcing turnovers; there is a smattering of offensive ingenuity, be it Henry in the wildcat, getting Ryan Tannehill out of the pocket or RPOs.
Then, Tannehill makes big-time throws when big-time plays are needed. When it’s all clicking, it’s tough for any team to stop.
However, Vrabel has also proven to be stubborn. A coach should never confuse ideology with the correct strategic response to a specific situation.
The Steelers’ defense is not the Bills’ defense or the Texans’ defense or whatever it is the Jaguars are chucking on the field. Yet Vrabel stuck to the same plan: run on early downs; get creative on the later downs.
The Steelers were having none of it. Pittsburgh has the No 1 run-defence in the NFL, and it throttled the Tennessee rushing attack on Sunday.
Henry couldn’t find any rhythm despite the Titans running the ball on five of their eight first downs; they picked up a total of seven yards and led to three three-and-outs.
It wasn’t working, but Henry continued to woodpecker away in the hopes the dam would break at some point.
It didn’t work. Henry rushed 20 times for just 75 yards at an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Vrabel et al refused to throw on first down.
They refused to believe that by threatening to pass it might open up the run game, just as their run game so often acts as the sparkplug for the team’s passing game.
Vrabel’s stubborn approach played into Pittsburgh’s hands. But the victory was as much about the Steelers’ legitimacy as a genuine Super Bowl contender as it was the Titans’ plan. The two teams put their best units up against one another and the Steelers came out on top.
And the Steelers certainly have that look. Pittsburgh’s defence has hit on the perfect recipe.
They are smart, stay within themselves, and execute the little things that win games. And yet they also roll four-deep with out-and-out game-wreckers, players who can, at any time, single-handedly shift the tenor of a drive or game: Minkah Fitzpatrick; TJ Watt; Cameron Heyward; Stephon Tuitt.
The brilliance of all four is that their excellence – their dominance, really comes from playing within the scheme. Watt and Fitzpatrick have some freelancing tendencies. But more often than not their game-changing plays come by executing within the scheme at the highest of possible levels.
The Steelers’ offense is limited. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is not the Ben Roethlisberger of old. He is just old. There are still flashes of vintage Big Ben hidden in there, but he is now marshalling a don’t-throw-it-away offense. Get to 25 points and back the defence, that’s the mantra.
Roethlisberger delivered on Sunday. Tennessee entered Week 7 with the worst third-down rate of any defense in the league (57%!) and Roethlisberger took advantage: The Steelers completed 13-of-17 third downs, including a third-and-14 and a trio of third-and-12s.
The game was sloppy and choppy in the second half. The Titans brought it to within three with 10 minutes to go. But the Steelers early plan – drain the clock, shut down Henry – proved too much for the Titans to overcome. By the time Vrabel shifted plans, the game had all but gone.
There’s still plenty of football to play. This week’s matchup against the Ravens will serve as another test of whether or not Pittsburgh are capital-C Contenders. But at this point, it’s clear that the Steelers have the blend of system and playmakers that defines a championship team.