PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin calls it “complementary” football, the ability of one unit of the Pittsburgh Steelers to feed off the other.
The longtime Steelers coach insists it's not a one-way street either. The offense can feed the defense just as easily as the defense can feed the offense.
However Tomlin wants to describe it, it was on full display in Sunday's 28-21 comeback victory over Houston. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw passes to eight different players. Four running backs got at least one carry. Five different defenders were credited with at least a half sack. Fourteen defenders had at least one tackle.
“We just went out there and dominated,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said.
At least in the second half, when the defense held the Texans to 51 yards while Roethlisberger led three drives that lasted 11 plays or more as the Steelers improved to 3-0 for the first time in a decade. Roethlisberger spread it around all game, including on the 79-yard go-ahead touchdown drive that ended with a 12-yard sprint by running back James Conner.
Six different skill position players touched the ball on the drive, a showcase of the depth Tomlin stressed will be necessary if the Steelers want to contend in the AFC.
“We’re going utilize all our eligibles,” Tomlin said. “It’s important that we have a balanced group, that we can run it, we can throw it. That we have a variety of people to throw to it. We like the versatility of the group, the specialization of the group, and it allows us to move the ball fluidly.”
Having a defense that makes quick work of opponents helps. The Texans had the ball four times in the second half. Three of the drives ended with three plays and a punt. The other in defensive back Mike Hilton's fifth career interception. Houston managed just 51 yards and two first downs over the final two quarters, a stark contrast from the first half when Pittsburgh looked tentative at times while Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson went to work.
“We gave up some possessions early," Tomlin said. “Sometimes that can put a bad taste in your mouth, but they didn’t allow it to spoil the day.”
Or the month. The previous time Pittsburgh started 3-0, it reached the Super Bowl. The competition, however, hasn't exactly been tough. The Steelers' three wins are over teams who are now a combined 0-9. A sterner test awaits in Tennessee next Sunday against the unbeaten Titans (3-0).
Still, being 3-0 beats the alternative, particularly for a team that has occasionally stubbed its toe against inferior clubs. Not so much in 2020.
“We’re a four-quarter team,” Conner said. “Our defense allowed us to get back in. When the defense is making three-and-out stops, keep putting us back on offense, we’ve got to get it going eventually.”
Conner's season began with concerns about his ability to stay healthy after tweaking his left ankle early in a win over the Giants. He's responded with consecutive 100-yard performances, the 109-yard effort on Sunday, the first time he's topped the century mark in back-to-back games since Weeks 7 and 8 in 2018.
The Steelers picked up veteran punter Dustin Colquitt on the eve of the regular season because of his resume. So far, not so good. The 38-year-old is last in the league in net punting average (36.8 yards per kick).
Hilton picked a pretty good time to have a contract year. The undersized (5-foot-9, 184 pounds) defensive back's run of impact plays continued when he picked off Watson early in the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the go-ahead touchdown drive.
“He’s just a tough little football player,” Tomlin said. “He’s a football player first and (nickel back) second. He’s good in the run game. He’s solid in the passing game as well, and that provides a platform for him to be noticed in a variety of spaces.”
Tough call for an undefeated team. Left guard Matt Feiler didn't have the best day against the Texans, allowing a sack and failing to get a chip on Texans star J.J. Watt that turned a potentially big gain by Conner into just 2 yards. It's a nitpick at best and worth noting Feiler and the rest of the line dominated in the fourth quarter when the Steelers ran 23 plays to salt the game.
The Steelers have largely avoided the catastrophic injuries that have befallen other teams. Second-year wide receiver Diontae Johnson left in the second quarter on Sunday after being checked for a concussion and fullback Derek Watt tweaked a hamstring. There's depth behind Johnson on the outside, thanks in part to the rapid development of rookie Chase Claypool, who drew a key pass interference penalty on Sunday that led to a field goal.
.714 — Tomlin's winning percentage in the month of October (35-14). The Steelers have never posted a losing record during the month in Tomlin's 13 years on the job.
Trying to put together a complete game defensively on the road in Tennessee. Finding a way to jump on the Titans might help because it would limit the impact of All-Pro running back Derrick Henry.
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