Since the NFL-AFL merger, there have been six contests that featured a pair of 5-0 teams. The first five winners all reached the Super Bowl. And while the fate of the sixth, the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers, is yet to be determined, their 27-24 win over the Titans on Sunday showed that they have a legitimate shot at doing the same.
Pittsburgh wanted to set the tone early against Tennessee, and it did. The Steelers cruised through the first half, leaning on their dominant defense while waging lengthy, productive offensive drives that prevented Derrick Henry and Co. from making an early impact. The Titans had a record-setting outing a week ago against the Texans, but that momentum did not carry into this game. Tennessee’s run-heavy attack went three-and-out on two of its four first-half drives and failed to convert a fourth-down attempt on another, allowing the Steelers—who scored on each of their first four possessions—to jump out to a 24-7 lead. Despite losing star linebacker Devin Bush to a torn ACL last week, the Steelers defense didn’t skip a beat, holding Henry to 75 yards on 20 carries just one week after he rushed for 212 yards.
Even with that great start, though, Pittsburgh looked far from perfect in the second half. The Steelers kicked a field goal on their opening third-quarter series to take a 27-7 lead, but little else went right from there. Tennessee’s defense settled down, forced a pair of punts, and picked off Ben Roethlisberger twice. Those turnovers helped the Titans remain within striking distance and allowed them to rely on their rushing attack. Roethlisberger’s second interception of the half—a tip-drill pick in the end zone that spoiled a potential scoring chance—almost led to Tennessee tying the game. But Stephen Gostkowski’s missed 45-yard field goal preserved the Steelers’ 6-0 start—it’s their best opening run since the 1978 season.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters after the game that Sunday’s outing was “not a perfect product.” But, he noted, “We are perfect from a record standpoint.”
Pittsburgh remains the lone undefeated team in the AFC as the season approaches the halfway mark. If there were any lingering concerns about the Steelers’ legitimacy, they should nearly be put to rest. The Steelers are a Super Bowl contender, and worthy of being considered in the same breath as the Chiefs and Ravens at the top of the conference. Sunday’s performance proved that the only thing capable of slowing this team down is itself.
Pittsburgh entered the contest averaging 31.2 points per game (fourth in the NFL), which means this team can compete with the league’s most high-powered offenses. The defense entered Sunday ranked second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and it has generated more pressure than any other team in the league. The Titans may not be the most fearsome group in the league, but they provided the Steelers’ first litmus test to prove they are legitimate. Pittsburgh passed it, and was on track to do so with flying colors until the second half. There are more tests to come, including a matchup with the rival Ravens next week, but earning a victory in the first trial is a big relief for Pittsburgh.
There are still obvious questions about the Steelers’ chances of emerging as a favorite to win the AFC. Much of that rests on the arm of Roethlisberger, who completed 32 of 49 passes (65.3 percent) for 268 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions on Sunday. The 38-year-old has been playing well so far this season—he entered the contest on track to reach a career best in completion percentage (69.1) and had thrown only one interception. But he also came into the week 21st in QBR (60.0) and 24th in expected points added (24.1) among qualified passers. In addition to his three picks Sunday, his completion rate was 5.2 points below expected, per Next Gen Stats. His average depth of target (5.6 yards) ranked among the lowest produced this week. Some of that can be attributed to the game plan and to Roethlisberger getting reacquainted with Diontae Johnson, who recently dealt with a back injury. Some of it might have been because of whatever adjustments Titans coach Mike Vrabel made at halftime, as Tennessee generated five QB pressures and gave Roethlisberger little time to sit in the pocket. Whatever the case, Roethlisberger didn’t click with his targets in the second half and either forced throws or missed receivers. His missteps played a role in allowing Tennessee to get back into the game.
If Roethlisberger can channel any bit of his past form, the Steelers’ potential could be boundless. Aside from the QB, there aren’t too many more holes in Pittsburgh’s makeup. Sure, the Steelers’ running game is average, but their offense’s playmakers form one of the NFL’s most dynamic receiving corps, and their defense has proved that it is one of the league’s elite.
There’s still plenty of season to play, and next week’s matchup against the Ravens will serve as another measure of Pittsburgh’s potential. But at this point, it’s clear: the Steelers are very much for real.