Pittsburgh — Another uninspiring half in the books in a season littered with them for a team that expects to play deep into January and beyond, Ben Roethlisberger decided he had seen enough.
So the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback decided it was time to speak up. The defense had kept the Tennessee Titans and star Marcus Mariota in check, yet a game that had the makings of a blowout didn’t feel like one mostly because the offense kept squandering chance after chance.
“He didn’t call anyone out, he called all of us out,” guard David DeCastro said. “Linemen. Receivers. Himself. Running backs. Purely positive. It was a challenge. He challenged us. The guys responded.”
None better than the 35-year-old Roethlisberger. Running the no-huddle offense to near perfection, Roethlisberger threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns, three to Antonio Brown, as the Steelers pulled away for a 40-17 victory.
“I don’t care if you’re old or young, just someone has to step up and make a play for this team or else we are going to keep relying on our defense,” said Roethlisberger, who went 20 of 23 for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. “It is time that we step up and do something.”
Brown caught 10 passes for 144 yards and the three scores, including an acrobatic grab in the back of the end zone in which he pinned the ball to his helmet before bringing it in to put Pittsburgh up 20 in the fourth quarter as the Steelers set a season-high for points and margin of victory.
“We’ve talked so much about having the potential in this room, but we can still strive for more,” said defensive end Cam Heyward, who had two of Pittsburgh’s five sacks. “We’re a hungry group that still has a lot to prove. We’re chasing ghosts. We’re trying to be the best defense. That’s what we strive for.”
For long stretches, the Steelers (8-2) looked the part while extending their winning streak to five.
Though Mariota ran for a touchdown and threw for another, he was also picked off a career-high four times as the Titans (6-4) saw their four-game winning streak come to a crashing halt. Mariota finished 22 of 33 for 306 yards but was under pressure much of the night.
“When you play teams that are this caliber that are contenders, that win week in and week out, that’s the blueprint,” Mariota said. “We’re going to learn from it. We’re going to get better from it and hopefully we’ll see them again.”
There’s plenty to work on. Tennessee appeared to be in it when Mariota found Matthews with a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to get to 16-14.
Then Roethlisberger and the NFL’s highest-paid offense got going. Finally. Roethlisberger dropped some very not subtle hints that he wanted the freedom provided by the no-huddle after the Steelers used it to pick the Colts apart during the winning drive last Sunday in Indianapolis.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley appeared to be listening.
Pittsburgh opened in the no huddle and needed just six plays to take the lead as Roethlisberger took advantage of a free play and hit Brown with a 41-yard rainbow. Mike Hilton then returned Mariota’s interception to set up the first of Chris Boswell’s four field goals and the Steelers appeared on the verge of another prime-time blowout at home.
The blowout did eventually arrive, just not quickly.
The offense ground to a halt for the rest of the half, held in check by former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Hall of Famer spent 12 years building a defense that helped Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl victories before being ushered out in favor of protege Keith Butler in January 2015. The 80-year-old is in the middle of his latest project with the steadily improving Titans.
Yet the gap between Tennessee and Pittsburgh remains significant. The proof came after Mathews’ long catch-and-run appeared to give the Titans momentum.
The Steelers reeled off three straight touchdown drives. Roethlisberger found a leaping Brown for a 5-yard score restored a nine-point lead, executed a perfect play-action fake at the goal line before flipping it to a wide-open Jesse James for a 1-yard strike and put the Titans away with a lob to the back corner of the end zone that Brown somehow hauled in from 10 yards out that made it 37-17.
Pittsburgh rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster knelt down and bowed to Brown during the giddy celebration. Hard to blame the 20-year-old. For the first time all season, the Steelers put it all together and looked every bit like a team with a legitimate threat to live up to its own hype.
Cook’s spirits boosted
Dalvin Cook’s promising rookie season with Minnesota was left painfully short, a simple cut on the turf gone wrong in the fourth game of his career agaisnt Detroit that resulted in a torn ACL in his left knee.
The devastating injury didn’t keep him down for long, though. He’s been in good company with the Vikings, whose roster is full of former knee reconstruction patients.
They’ve provided Cook with plenty of advice, encouragement and inspiration.
“I feel great,” he said, adding: “This team, man. It’s just fun being around them. These guys, they help me get through it every day.”
The motivators start with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose comeback from a dislocation and multiple ligament tears was even more daunting than the ACL-only recovery Cook has begun.
Bridgewater called him daily in the early post-op stage, following the surgery performed on Oct. 9 by Dr. James Andrews in Florida.
“He knows what to say. He knows how to say it,” Cook said. “So it’s great having him in my corner.”
Addressing reporters in the team’s locker room on Thursday, his first public comments since the injury on Oct. 1 , Cook appeared as upbeat as ever.
He displays a low-key, soft-spoken demeanor, but he was all smiles during the interview session despite the circumstance.
“It’s frustrating because we want to be out there competing with our teammates, but you know it’s part of the game,” said Cook, who still leads the Vikings with 354 rushing yards.
“It’s what we sign up for, so that’s something I had to realize.”
The Associated Press has obtained a letter sent by the NFL to Jerry Jones’ attorney accusing the Cowboys owner of “conduct detrimental to the league’s best interests” over his objection to a contract extension for Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The letter accusing Jones of sabotaging the negotiations was sent to David Boies on Wednesday.
Jones hired Boies and threatened to sue the NFL if Goodell’s contract extension was approved by the compensation committee, made up of six owners. All 32 owners voted unanimously in May to let the committee finalize a deal with Goodell.
The letter, first reported by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, was written by outside counsel for the compensation committee and given to the AP by a person who requested anonymity because it was not to be made public.It’s the latest escalation of a feud between the NFL and one of its most powerful owners.