Looking Glass Tales: Steelers Defeat Titans 27-24, Start 6-0, Evoking Memories of ’92 Win over Oilers

It was the middle of the season. Time for the two biggest boys on the block to fight. The competition was intense. Hits were hard. One side went up big. The game appeared out of reach. The other fought back. The outcome hinged on a final kicked ball….

  • That summarizes the Steelers 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans.

It also summarizes a similar contest two franchises waged in the fall of 1992. Today’s game was between the AFC’s last undefeated teams, whereas yesteryear’s was for AFC Central supremacy. Two games, 27 years apart would mirror each other to a T. With one critical exception….

Diontae Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Steelers vs Titans

Diontae Johnson reminds Malcolm Bulter the Steelers have receivers not named Claypool. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

First Half – One of the Best Halves of the Tomlin Era

Pittsburgh’s first half against the Titans has to rank as one of the top ten best halves that the Steelers have played during the Mike Tomlin era. Ben Roethlisberger set the tone by asking his coach to receive should they win the toss.

The Steelers won, and Roethlisberger delivered as he, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, and Diontae Johnson presented a clinic on possession football. By mixing short passes and aggressive runs Pittsburgh piced together a 16-play drive that burned more than  9 minutes off the clock.

The Titans All-World running back Derrick Henry could do nothing but watch as Diontae Johnson put the Steelers up by 7 with barely 5 minutes left in the first quarter.

Vince Williams limited Henry’s next carry to one yard, Cam Sutton saw to it that Ryan Tannehill’s next pass fell incomplete, and just like that the Titans were punting back to the Steelers.

  • In a nutshell, that is the story of the first half.
Benny Snell, Steelers vs Titans 2020

Benny Snell puts the Steelers up 14-0. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

The Steelers got the ball back and executed another 13 play drive that consumed another 7 minutes off the clock, this time ending with Benny Snell pounding it in at the goal line.

  • The Titans responded with a long drive of their own.

But by the time Tennessee scored a touchdown just over 5 minutes were left in the half, and the Steelers used two and a half of those tack on a 30-yard field goal. Then it was T.J. Watt’s turn to stuff Henry for a loss, which set up another Titans 3 and out.

Backed up against his own end zone Brett Kern boomed off an impressive punt, which Ray-Ray McCloud returned 57 yards all the way to the Titans 17. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger was hooking up with Diontae Johnson for his 2nd touchdown of the afternoon, putting Pittsburgh up 24 to 7.

The Steelers forced the Titans to turn over on downs, and instead of playing it safe, Mike Tomlin went for the end zone, but unfortunately Dane Cruikshank picked him off. Disappointing, yes? But an interception with 14 seconds remaining in the half when you’re leading 24-7 really isn’t anything to worry about. Is it….?

Historical Interlude – Steelers vs. Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium November 1992

Bill Cowher’s 1992 Steelers shocked the NFL by upsetting the Houston Oilers on opening day and followed that victory by winning four of their next six to set up a showdown at Three Rivers Stadium for sole ownership of the AFC Central lead.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

  • This was one of those games that NFL Films couldn’t have scripted better if it tried.

The first half saw the Steelers and Oilers fight to a 7-6 advantage in a game that evoked some of the contest the two teams had fought in the 1970’s. Yet, in the 3rd quarter the Oilers took control, scoring a touchdown and then with in minutes returning a strip sack to score another, to hold a 20-7 lead late into the 4th quarter against and offense not known for its speed at scoring points.

Yet, Neil O’Donnell rallied Pittsburgh, hitting tight ends Adrian Cooper and Eric Green for touchdowns, the latter of which gave the Steelers a 21 to 20 lead just ahead of the two minute warning.

Sloppy Second Half Raises Blood Pressure Across Steelers Nation

…As it turns out, Roethlisberger’s interception at the close of the first half foreshadowed things to come. Sure, T.J. Watt started the half with a sack that set up a Titans 3 and out, and the Steelers responded with another Chris Boswell field goal, making it 27-7. But things unraveled after that.

  • Minkah Fitzpatrick blinked, allowing A.J. Brown to take it to the house for 73 yards
  • A tipped ball gave the Titans an interception at the Steelers 30
  • The defense limited Tennessee to 3, but the score stood at 27-17 with a quarter remaining
  • The Steelers stopped Tennessee on 4th & 1 at the goal, but committed a penalty
  • The Titans took advantage and made it 27-24, with 10 minutes to play

The Steelers responded by milking 7:38 off the clock, but the Titans intercepted Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone, giving them the ball at the Steelers 20 with 2:34 left to play and a chance to win it all.

As It Was in 1992, It is Again in 2020: Wide Right!

It’s ironic how two games between two franchises separated by 10,221 days can evolve as mirror images of each other.

The 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers had clawed their way back from defeat to hold a 1 point lead with little more than two minutes separating them from a win over the Houston Oilers and the division lead.

The 2020 Tennessee Titans had clawed their way back from disaster and two minutes separated them from turning the tables on the Steelers and establishing themselves as the AFC’s last undefeated team.

  • The 1992 Oilers marched down the field reaching field goal range as time threatened to expire
  • The 2020 Titans marched down field reaching field goal range as a 4th and 13 made it now or never

Mirror images indeed, except that ending was the only element to escape the reversal of fortunes that all looking glasses trap in their reflection:

  • Like Al Del Greco 27 years and 11 months earlier, Stephen Gostkowski field goal sailed wide right!

And the Steelers left Nashville with a 6-0 record.

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