It's time to start taking the Steelers seriously as Super Bowl contenders
Photo: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images
Styles make matchups. And Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel stepped up in Week 7 determined to give the audience the matchup they longed for: Derrick Henry and the Titans' bulldozing attack on Pittsburgh's dominant defensive front.
Henry entered the game as the first player in NFL history to race over 200 yards in three consecutive games. But there was an excess of Henry on Sunday when the Titans stopped.
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Vrabel is an accomplished tactician who isn't afraid to defy football orthodoxy. Since the league has switched to a league only with a pass, Vrabel leans on a ground attack based on wide zones.
The Titans' formula for success this season was simple: Henry lines up, slams down the defensive front, or storms past it; The passing game is based on an action attack. A vigorous defense focuses on forcing sales. there's a bit of offensive ingenuity, be it Henry in the Wildcat pulling Ryan Tannehill out of his pocket or RPOs; Tannehill makes big throws when big games are needed. When everything clicks, it's difficult for any team to stop.
But Vrabel has also proven persistent. A coach should never confuse ideology with the right strategic response to a particular situation. Defending the Steelers is not defending the Bills or the Texans or whatever the jaguars are throwing in the field. But Vrabel stuck to the same plan: run on early departures; Get creative in the later depths.
The Steelers got none of it. Pittsburgh has the No. 1 run defense in the NFL, and it throttled the Tennessee Rushing Attack on Sunday. Henry couldn't find a rhythm, despite the Titans running the ball on five of their first eight downs. They recorded a total of seven meters and resulted in three three-and-outs. It didn't work, but Henry kept spitting, hoping the dam would break at some point.
It did not work. Henry rushed 20 times for only 75 yards with an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Vrabel et al. Refused to throw down first. Refused to believe that the threat of a pass could open the running game, just as the running game so often acts as a spark plug for the team's passing game.
Vrabel's persistent approach played into the hands of Pittsburgh. The victory was just as much about the legitimacy of the Steelers as it was about a real Super Bowl contender as it was about the titans' plan. The two teams played their best units against each other and the Steelers have the edge.
The game was only the fifth time in the history of the league that two teams had competed 5-0 or better in week 7 or later. On each of these occasions, the winning side has played in the Super Bowl.
Related: Steelers consider titans undefeated in NFL matchup for the best start in 42 years
And the Steelers definitely look that way. Pittsburgh's defense found the perfect recipe.
They are smart, stick to themselves, and do the little things that win games. And yet they also roll with through and through game wreckers, players who can single-handedly change the tenor of a drive or game at any time: Minkah Fitzpatrick; TJ watts; 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 freelance tendencies. Most of the time, however, their groundbreaking games are executed at the highest level within the scheme.
The Steelers' offense is limited. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is not the old Ben Roethlisberger. He's just old. There are still lightning bolts of Vintage Big Ben hidden in it, but he's now putting together a criminal offense that can't be thrown away. Get 25 points and support the defense, that's the mantra.
Roethlisberger delivered on Sunday. Tennessee started week 7 with the worst third down rate of any defense in the league (57%!) And Roethlisberger took advantage of the fact that the Steelers completed 13 of 17 third downs, including a third-and-14 and a trio of thirds -and-12s.
The game was sloppy and choppy in the second half. The Titans got it to ten in three minutes. But the Steelers' early plan - turn off the clock, turn Henry off - proved too much for the Titans to overcome. When Vrabel changed his plans, the game was as good as over.
There is still a lot of football to play. Next week's matchup against the Ravens will be another test of whether or not Pittsburgh are Capital-C contenders. At this point, however, it's clear that the Steelers have the mix of system and playmakers that defines a championship team.
Video of the week
Where should I start?
Only for the Hawks it would be a bad thing to score a late game touchdown while they are losing. You almost have to rewind to check if it's the Lions defenders raising their arms when they see Atlanta run back Todd Gurley, who breaks the plane and scores a touchdown just over a minute ahead.
Gurley scored a touchdown instead of moving on the one-yard line and returned the ball to the Lions to win the game. Had he stopped on the one-yard line, the hawks could have emptied the clock and then kicked a field gate to climb between 5pm and 2pm when the time ran out. Instead, Gurley gave the Lions a chance with the touchdown.
Since this is Atlanta, of course, the Lions drove a minute before the end of the field. Of course, Matthew Stafford could bob and weave in the pocket to lengthen games and slide the ball down. Of course, the Lions could score after the time ran out. And of course, Lions kicker Matt Prater split the posts to bring the Lions victory. Atlanta only.
MVP of the Week
A tough trip for Aaron Rodgers in Tampa Bay last week kicked off another round of Is This For Rodgers? Conversations. The Green Bay quarterback responded with a typically brilliant performance against the Texans. He finished the game 22 against 34, throwing 283 yards and four touchdowns.
Last week Rodgers looked confused by the Bucs' elaborate defense. He's been safer and more controlled this week, with a couple of Rodgers-like splash games pinned for good measure. Packer's coach Matt LaFleur was able to manipulate a few simple throws for his quarterback. At this point in time, any kind of misdirection or movement against the Texas defense is borderline cruel. But when Houston found a rare antithesis to LaFleur's designs, Rodgers provided flashes of his signature brilliance.
At 36 years of age, in his 16th professional season, his genius remains in full bloom. Don't argue about it. Just enjoy it.
Quote of the week
"This week, Mike McCarthy said there is research showing that if a team has four division wins, the more likely they are to win the division" - Kim Jones, NFL Network
McCarthy delves into all of the new analyzes. Indeed, more wins in a division would increase your chances of winning in the division. But the cowboys didn't win this week. They were beaten 25-3 by Washington, an equally lukewarm side with a lively defense.
Is it time to consider McCarthy a one-off candidate? Dismissing a coach early isn't the Jerry Jones or the Jones family path. Usually, cowboy ownership rests on a coach for a season or two (or three or four) too long. But the signs aren't good for McCarthy: The Cowboys lead the league in sales; They were miserable on both sides of the ball. In the locker room, there are already reports of friction between the coaching staff and the players. Two players spoke to NFL Media's Jane Slater last week accusing McCarthy of being "completely unprepared".
It's often a vague thing coaches talk about, but at Dallas it's real: the team doesn't have a fight. The Cowboys have been injured this season, they lost backup quarterback Andy Dalton with a tremendous hit on Sunday, but so did Washington. But Ron Rivera's team looked like they had a plan and wanted to play. For much of Sunday, it looked like McCarthy's players would rather be somewhere else.
Statistics of the week
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have now completed 92 career touchdowns (including the playoffs), ranking second-highest in NFL history with Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Brady and Gronkowski follow only Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (114 touchdowns).
It's official: Tom Brady will play until he's 100 years old. Brady just keeps getting better as the season progresses. Who would have thought that the longer a quarterback spent in a new system with their new teammates the better they would get?
Brady is still limited in some ways compared to the player he was a decade ago - he's more passive in the pocket, less willing to stare down the barrel of the passing rush - but he's just as good from the neck and has still as strong as three, four or six years ago. The Bucs are real competitors. Oh, and Antonio Brown will be joining the team next week.
Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady, 12, celebrates with Rob Gronkowski, 87, and Tyler Johnson, 18, after Gronkowski scored a touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half of Sunday's game.
Elsewhere in the league
• After a terrible start against the Bengals, Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield rallied for one of his best performances ever with the pros. Mayfield started 5-0 on the road and dropped an interception for the second time in two weeks on his first attempt - an interception that resulted in Odell Beckham injuring his knee. After that, Mayfield was practically flawless: He completed 22 of 33 passes for 295 and five touchdowns. Its only incompleteness was a point. The Browns won the game 37-34.
• There would always be a year when the patriots are terrible. This is the year. Games against Seattle and Vegas feel like a lifetime ago. This was the third week in a row that Bill Belichick's team was completely overwhelmed. Cam Newton had a tough outing, completing 9 of 15 attempts to pass for just 98 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. It was increased by four points in the fourth quarter with the 49ers.
• A breakout performance from uncovered rookie Marquez Callaway helped the Saints beat the Panthers (27-24). The Saints were good, but it was Matt Rhule's Panther's side that stood out. In a short time, and in a year that had its first preseason interrupted, the Panthers are playing excellent, inventive football on both sides of the ball. He graduated from college to the NFL with a program builder reputation, more than a schematic scholar, and could already see the need for a solid foundation in Carolina.
• The Falcons fell 1-6 after losing to the Lions. Even so, NFL insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday morning that Atlanta Julio Jones or Matt Ryan would not act until close of trading. It is an objectively wise decision to keep two excellent players while they are still near their apex, but the rest of the Falcons list is so talentless that the team should consider at least a factory reset. Trading Ryan and Jones this season would destroy Atlanta's cap (there is almost $ 28 million in dead funds on their deals if traded) but with a new coach and power structure due at the end of the season is why not bottom out and reset the team's timeline? Ryan will be 36 years old at the start of next season; Jones turns 32 and injuries are starting to rise for the star-wide recipient. Regardless of whether it hurts the cap or not, Atlanta should be looking to make money and get as many draft picks as possible. Standing knock can be the riskiest route.
• The Titans were fined $ 350,000 by the NFL for violating the league's coronavirus protocols. Tennessee suffered the first NFL outbreak on a team with 24 tests positive for the novel coronavirus among members of the organization. 13 of them were players. Their facility was closed for 11 days and two of their games were postponed. The Titans are the first team to receive a significant penalty from the league (although the Raiders are currently under investigation), and Commissioner Roger Goodell has warned that teams that constantly violate protocols will face an escalating penalty, including possible loss of draft picks. A threat that the league's owners and coaches will take as seriously as OJ Simpson's promise to find the "real killers".
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