Steelers rebound with 16-6 preseason win against Titans
Ben Roethlisberger moved the ball effectively down the Heinz Field grass on three possessions and didn’t commit a turnover. The defense was stifling, giving up just four first downs and no points while the starters were in the game.
It was the type of display expected seven months ago from the Pittsburgh Steelers in their divisional playoff game in January.
The stakes weren’t nearly as high Saturday afternoon, but in their first game back at Heinz Field since that stunning playoff loss to Jacksonville, the Steelers played their most complete game of the preseason in a 16-6 victory against the Tennessee Titans.
The third game of the exhibition grind is considered a trial run for the real thing with starters getting extended playing time. To that end, the Steelers showed significant improvement from the 51-34 loss at Green Bay nine days earlier -- and that 45-42 loss to the Jaguars in January.
“I like what I saw on a lot of fronts,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
Working extensively out of the no-huddle in his first appearance of the preseason, Roethlisberger completed 11 of 18 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Roethlisberger had little difficulty moving the offense -- the Steelers had 10 first downs while he was in the game -- but the only points he produced came on a 32-yard touchdown pass to Justin Hunter that initially was ruled an incompletion.
“We did it without some big names out there,” Roethlisberger said. “We were without Le’Veon (Bell), without AB (Antonio Brown), without Vance (McDonald), so some guys stepped up and did some really good things.”
Hunter’s catch, along the right sideline as he tiptoed into the end zone, gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead with 1 minute, 28 seconds left in the first quarter.
Hunter, competing for the No. 3 receiver spot, started because of Brown’s continued absence because of injury. He had two catches for 37 yards.
“One thing I wanted to connect with Ben on today was a ‘go’ ball,” Hunter said “We got the opportunity, and we need to stack on that.”
Roethlisberger returned for a third series and advanced the ball to the Titans 43 before turning it over on downs. Roethlisberger lamented some of his incompletions, notably several high throws to tight end Jesse James, who suffered a back contusion in the game.
“I wasn’t real happy with the way I threw the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “I was kind of sailing some passes.”
Roethlisberger handed a 7-0 lead to Landry Jones with 9:12 left in the second quarter. Jones completed 6 of 9 passes for 44 yards and an interception.
Running the two-minute offense, Jones led the Steelers on a short drive that ended with Chris Boswell’s 42-yard field goal with 8 seconds left before halftime.
James Conner had only 18 rushing yards on 10 carries, but he caught six passes for 52 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught six of eight targets for 46 yards.
Third-round draft pick Mason Rudolph played the second half, and the Steelers increased their lead to 16-0 on two more Boswell field goals.
The first-team defense, with Cameron Heyward and Joe Haden suiting up for the first time in the preseason, played into the second half and held the Titans to 51 totals yards and four first downs.
Highlights included sacks by Stephon Tuitt, Heyward and Vince Williams, plus an interception by rookie first-round pick Terrell Edmunds, who started in place of injured Morgan Burnett at strong safety.
In the second preseason game, at Green Bay, the defensive starters allowed an average of 5.3 yards per play. This time, they reduced that number to 2.0 yards per play while the starters were in the game.
The Titans got four first downs on their initial drive, then didn’t get another until the backups took the field.
“Our main thing is getting off the field,” Heyward said. “The first drive, we didn’t get off the field, but we still didn’t surrender any points. We always talk about a good defense is a defense that’s on the sideline. ... As a defense, we’re trying to get off the field, create sacks, turnovers, and we did that for the most part, and we’ve got to continue to do that.”
The backups kept applying the pressure. Defensive lineman Lavon Hooks and linebackers Ola Adeniyi and Farrington Huguenin had second-half sacks, and rookie Marcus Allen had an interception on a late Hail Mary.
Fifth-round draft pick Jaylen Samuels, stating a case to be the No. 3 running back, was the workhorse in the second half. On the first drive, he touched the ball on nine of the 11 plays, carrying five times for 28 yards and catching four passes for 36 yards.
He finished with a game-high 41 yards rushing on 11 attempts.
“I was up for the test,” Samuels said. “I had a lot of touches back-to-back. I just tried to get into a little rhythm, and once I found my rhythm, I just kept going with that.”