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Steelers start fast, hold off Titans rally to remain unbeaten

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For going on the road and beating the only other undefeated team in the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers had few positive emotions to display Sunday after a 27-24 victory against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium.

The mood was more of exhaustion than elation after the Steelers nearly squandered a 20-point second-half lead. The Titans scored 17 unanswered points and were a 45-yard field goal attempt from forcing overtime before Stephen Gostkowski pushed his kick wide right with 14 seconds left to ensure the Steelers’ sixth consecutive victory.

“Nothing is guaranteed,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “It’s a good win, but there’s a lot we’ve got to improve on going forward. I know we were able to answer the challenge in some cases, but we’ve got bigger challenges ahead.”

The win came in the first of three consecutive road games for the Steelers to close the first half of the season. They hold a one-game lead over the idle Baltimore Ravens (5-1), who have an extra week to prepare for the AFC North showdown at M&T Bank Stadium next Sunday.

“We feel that it could be very special, and we’re happy with where we are right now,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, “but that’s going to be short-lived happiness because we know what’s coming up next.”

The Titans, who trailed 27-7 early in the third quarter, fell to 5-1.

The matchup began as a rout, as the Steelers built a 24-7 halftime lead by controlling the ball from the outset. They ran a combined 29 plays and took more than 16 minutes off the clock in grabbing a 14-0 lead.

Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes in the opening half to Diontae Johnson, who finished with nine catches for 80 yards. Benny Snell added a 1-yard touchdown run.

Chris Boswell’s second field goal provided a 27-7 advantage with 10:26 left in the third, but it all went downhill from there and ended with the Steelers watching helplessly as Gostkowski, a four-time Pro Bowl pick, was called on to even the score.

“I was surprised he missed it,” said wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had season highs with nine receptions and 85 yards. “Ideally, I was hoping to go to overtime. I mean, he’s a good kicker. It’s tough, but it is what it is. It’s a great win for us.”

After throwing just one interception in his first five games, Roethlisberger threw three against the Titans, including two that were picked in the end zone. He completed 32 of 49 attempts for 268 yards and had a season-low 67.4 passer rating.

The defense, which had eight interceptions and forced nine turnovers while building the 5-0 start, didn’t register one in their first game without inside linebacker Devin Bush.

“You don’t win many games (being) minus-three,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “You don’t win many games giving up 70-yard touchdown passes.”

The latter occurred two plays after Boswell’s 30-yard field goal made it 27-7. Ryan Tannehill spotted A.J. Brown on a slant, and he took it 73 yards for a score.

Roethlisberger’s first interception – a deep pass into the end zone intended for Johnson – kept the Steelers from building on their lead on the final play of the first half. His second, which happened with 3:48 left in the third, led to a 51-yard field goal from Gostkowski that pulled the Titans within 27-17.

Aided by a 15-yard penalty on a late hit at the outset of their next drive, the Titans went 70 yards in 12 plays to pull within three points on Derrick Henry’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Henry, the NFL’s rushing leader, spent much of the first half watching from the sideline as the Steelers possessed the ball for nearly 20 minutes and ran 39 plays to Tennessee’s 22. Henry got heated up in the second half but still finished with just 75 yards, his second-lowest output of the season.

Still, the Titans got one more shot when Roethlisberger’s pass into the end zone that was intended for Smith-Schuster was tipped and intercepted by Amani Hooker with 2:35 left. It came on the 16th play of a drive that began at the Steelers 9. Before the pick, Roethlisberger had completed four passes on third down while exhausting nearly eight minutes off the clock.

“We would like to have a complete game, we would like to have a second half like the first, but they’re a professional team,” Roethlisberger said. “They made some adjustments, and I didn’t make enough plays in the second half.”

On the Titans’ final drive, Tannehill continued to poke holes in the NFL’s second-ranked defense while evading pressure with his quick throws. He had completions of 17 and 21 to Brown, the latter coming on a third-and-12 with a minute left that put the ball on the Steelers 25. An intentional grounding call on Tannehill pushed the ball back 10 yards, and a third-down incompletion put the outcome on Gostkowski’s right foot.

Only when he missed could the Steelers exhale.

“We have goals so high for ourselves because we know what we can do when we feel like we can be a truly special defense,” said outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who had one of the Steelers’ two sacks. “And that’s why no one’s really satisfied after today. We need to do a lot better job, especially in the second half.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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