PITTSBURGH – Joe Haden spent a month watching the Pittsburgh Steelers defense flail without him.
The veteran defensive back's return provided a spark. And all his off-season lifting provided the difference.
Haden stuffed Tennessee wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine inches short of a first down at the Pittsburgh 10 in the final seconds, sealing a 19-13 victory that resuscitated — for the time being anyway — the Steelers' playoff hopes.
Facing fourth-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 16, Ryan Tannehill found Westbrook-Ikhine at the 10. Haden, who missed four games with a sprained foot, closed immediately and shoved Westbrook-Ihkine backward. When the official measurement confirmed what Haden already knew — that the game was over — Pittsburgh's defense celebrated a win that marked another abrupt momentum shift in their topsy-turvy season.
“He's Joe Money,” Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt said. "He’s just a vet. He makes a lot of those really smart, veteran plays.”
Pittsburgh (7-6-1) needed every one of them on an afternoon in which the offense managed all of 168 yards.
It ultimately didn't matter.
The defense forced four turnovers — three on consecutive Tennessee possessions in the second half — just 10 days after getting mauled in a loss to Minnesota. Chris Boswell drilled four field goals and Ben Roethlisberger's first rushing touchdown in three years gave the Steelers their second win over a division leader in three weeks.
“When you’ve got teams like this and environments like this, every game is a playoff,” Roethlisberger said. "It had the feel of a playoff game, physically, emotionally.”
If not optically.
The Titans couldn't hold onto the ball. The Steelers couldn't move it. The result was three hours of push-pull in which Tennessee kept flirting with taking full command only to hand momentum right back to Pittsburgh with careless turnover after careless turnover.
“We have to hold the ball in much more regard,” Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said. “We obviously can’t do that and think you’re going to win.”
The Titans ran for 202 yards, including 108 by D'Onta Foreman, controlled possession for more than 39 minutes and converted eight of 18 third downs. Yet Tannehill struggled to find any rhythm in the passing game. He needed 23 completions to throw for 153 yards and was sacked four times, including 1 1/2 by T.J. Watt, whose 17 1/2 sacks on the season is a franchise record.
“I feel like if teams want to try and throw the ball, they also know the problems they are going to get from us,” Watt said.
Namely pressure from Watt, though he was hardly the only one making the splash plays that have been in short supply for Pittsburgh this season.
Watt, Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick all recovered fumbles. Linebacker Joe Schobert hauled in a Tannehill pass deflected by backup outside linebacker Taco Charlton and returned it 23 yards to set up Boswell's third field goal that gave Pittsburgh a 16-13 lead with 7:20 to go. Two plays later, Tannehill botched an exchange with the center and Watt fell on the loose ball to set up Boswell for a 48-yarder that pushed the Pittsburgh advantage to six.
The persistent miscues have become a discouraging trend of late for the Titans, who now have 13 turnovers in their last four games, a stretch in which they are just 1-3, with the lone win a turnover-free performance against woeful Jacksonville.
“It has to get cleaned up,” said Tannehill, who ran for his seventh touchdown of the season in the first half as the Titans built a 10-point lead. “Obviously, if you turn the ball over as many times as we did, you’re going to put yourself in a tough position.”
It's a position the Steelers have been in most of the season. All seven of their victories this season have come by eight points or less. It's rarely been pretty. Yet with Christmas looming, Pittsburgh somehow remains in the mix in the underwhelming AFC North.
“I think we still have a pulse in this thing,” Roethlisberger said. "So we’ll go from here.”
ROETHLISBERGER PASSES RIVERS
Roethlisberger finished 16 of 25 for 148 yards to move past 2004 NFL draft classmate Philip Rivers into fifth on the NFL's all-time yards passing list. Perhaps more remarkable was the sight of Roethlisberger running back-to-back quarterback sneaks in the third quarter. The second gave him his first rushing touchdown since a win at Jacksonville in 2018.
Asked what he was thinking as he laid at the bottom of the pile, the 39-year-old Roethlisberger couldn't help but crack a joke.
“I thought I broke the all-time Heinz rushing record, so I’m trying to take a moment for myself,” he said.
Former Pittsburgh linebacker Bud Dupree picked up a sack in his return to Heinz Field when he took down Roethlisberger in the third quarter. It marked the emotional high point of an emotional day for Dupree, who played six seasons with the Steelers before signing with Tennessee in the offseason.
Dupree, activated off injured reserve Saturday after dealing with an abdominal issue that sidelined him in early November, chatted at length with Roethlisberger after the opening coin toss and later exchanged an embrace with Watt, his longtime running mate.
Titans: WR Julio Jones tweaked his hamstring late in the second quarter and didn't return in the second half.
Steelers: TE Pat Freiermuth went into the concussion protocol in the third quarter after taking hits from Kristian Fulton and Zach Cunningham at the end of a 5-yard reception.
Titans: Have a short week ahead. Tennessee hosts San Francisco on Thursday night.
Steelers: Travel to Kansas City to visit the surging Chiefs next Sunday.
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