At their peak, the Pittsburgh Steelers have shown off an offense so explosive it’s looked capable of making them one of the NFL’s elite teams.
At their worst, they’ve played beneath the low level of some pretty dreadful competition.
A week after laying their latest egg against one of the NFL’s worst teams, the Steelers get a crack at another one Monday night as they visit the Tennessee Titans.
Pittsburgh (6-4) had its best rushing day in eight years with 264 yards in a 37-19 win at Carolina in Week 3, then lost at home to Tampa Bay the following Sunday in a result that remains the Buccaneers’ lone victory.
Ben Roethlisberger took his turn as the star in wins over Indianapolis and Baltimore to cap the Steelers’ 3-0 midseason homestand, throwing six touchdown passes in back-to-back weeks as Pittsburgh put up 94 points, but once again the shelf life on Pittsburgh’s positivity was short.
The Steelers fell behind 17-0 after one quarter last Sunday against the Jets, and Roethlisberger’s lone TD pass came with just 1:16 left in a 20-13 loss to a New York team that was 1-8 coming in.
"It’s the NFL, if you don’t show up ready to play your type of game, you’re going to lose," wide receiver Lance Moore said. "Our last game was a perfect example of that. We’re hot. We came in high and mighty and a team came in and played better than us."
Struggling against some of the league’s lightweights has been a somewhat alarming trend since Mike Tomlin’s arrival in 2007, particularly away from home. Pittsburgh has played nine road games in the second half of its schedule against teams with a sub-.300 winning percentage, and the Jets loss was its sixth in those contests.
The Steelers have a minus-15 turnover differential in those games.
"The ability is there, it’s just about going out and doing it," defensive end Cam Heyward told the team’s official website. "We have to have our focus and mindset on the Titans this week. We can’t forget what happened, but we have to move past it. We have to move in the right direction and clean up the stuff that put us in trouble this past week."
Pittsburgh’s early hole against the Jets continued another noteworthy road trend. Since the start of last season, the Steelers have been outscored 88-26 in the first quarter away from Heinz Field. They’ve held an 85-56 edge in the first 15 minutes at home.
Tomlin’s team has allowed an NFL-high 36 points on its opponents’ first offensive possession, but the Titans (2-7) have only come away with one field goal the first time they’ve had the ball.
Tennessee looked great in the first quarter last Sunday at Baltimore before reverting back to the form that’s seen it score the league’s fewest points. The Titans had 142 yards and a 7-0 lead after 15 minutes but were held to 68 yards on 30 plays the rest of the way in a 21-7 loss.
"Early in the first half we did a lot of good things to kind of counteract their guys," rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. "We just got to continue to … play like that for 60 minutes."
Mettenberger hasn’t been bad in his first two starts, completing 63.2 percent of his passes with three TDs and two interceptions, but he’ll want to focus on getting the ball out sooner against Pittsburgh. Baltimore switched to primarily zone coverage after its banged-up secondary struggled in man, and Mettenberger was sacked five times over the final three quarters while struggling with his reads.
"You try to have an internal clock, that lets you know when it’s time, but with the defensive linemen that they have, the clock goes a lot faster," Mettenberger said. "I know I need to play a lot smarter. This is a quarterback driven league and I have to play better."
Mettenberger’s task could be tougher without tight end Delanie Walker, who leads the team with 512 receiving yards but is questionable after being carted off against the Ravens with a concussion. Walker was cleared to practice this past week, but must be checked by an independent neurologist before he can play.
The Steelers have eight sacks in two games this month but have allowed four of the five QBs they’ve faced on the road to post a passer rating of at least 109.3, though the outlier also happened to be a rookie from the AFC South. Pittsburgh pressured Blake Bortles into a pair of interceptions in a Week 5 win at Jacksonville, improving to 18-2 against rookie signal-callers since Dick LeBeau returned as defensive coordinator in 2004.
Opening more holes in the running game could be just as significant in boosting that record as confusing Mettenberger. The Steelers have run for just 91 yards on 42 carries in their past two games, and haven’t scored on the ground since Week 3.
Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount might find the Titans’ defense slightly more accommodating. Tennessee has allowed an AFC-worst 4.53 yards per carry since October, including 363 yards and four touchdowns in its last two losses.
The Steelers were held to 31 yards on 15 carries as Bell missed a 16-9 Week 1 loss to the Titans last season.