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Steelers rout Titans, provide reminders of LeBeau Era

Who knew that a Dick LeBeau defense would be the first to allow the Steelers to score 30 points in game this season?

Not only did the Steelers break the 30-point barrier for the first time, they reached the big four-oh, beating the Titans 40-17 Thursday night at Heinz Field.

After scoring 20 points in two straight games, the Steelers put 20 and 20 together for a total that’s half of LeBeau’s age.

The former Steelers’ defensive coordinator returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since stepping down after the 2014 season and was greeted by Ben Roethlisberger‘s first four-touchdown game of the season. Three of those TD passes went to Antonio Brown, who hauled in 10 receptions for 144 yards.

We now know that the Steelers don’t need all these offensive fireworks to win football games. As it turns out, the key benchmark this season isn’t the offense scoring 30 but the defense allowing less than 20, which it did for the fifth straight game Thursday. Considering the defense was responsible for just 17 of the Jaguars’ 30 points in Week 5, that streak is really at seven games.

The Steelers hadn’t held opponents under 20 points in five straight games since the first five weeks of the 2010 season, when LeBeau was a newly inducted Hall of Famer and guiding a defense that would get the Steelers to the Super Bowl for the third time in six years.

Let’s face it. That 2010 unit, which forced 35 turnovers, was the Steelers’ last championship-caliber defense. The Steelers led the league in yards allowed and points allowed in 2011, but forced just 15 turnovers and proved to be a paper tiger against Tim Tebow in the playoffs.

That was the beginning of the end of LeBeau’s 11-year tenure in Pittsburgh even though there wasn’t much he could do about the aging of players like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Casey Hampton and James Farrior.

On Thursday, it wasn’t LeBeau’s job to do anything about Marcus Mariota‘s four interceptions and the five sacks he had to endure. Not since Oct. 1, 1984, in a 38-17 win over the Bengals, had the Steelers intercepted four passes and sacked the quarterback five times in the same game according to NBC.

LeBeau might remember that, too. He was the Bengals’ first-year defensive coordinator. Back then, he wasn’t witnessing the handiwork of his successor like he was Thursday.

The Steelers’ interceptions came from Mike Hilton, Coty Sensabaugh, Robert Golden and Sean Davis. Of that quartet, only Davis was drafted by the Steelers. Sensabaugh, a journeyman who the Steelers signed during the offseason, was drafted in the fourth round by the Titans in 2012. Hilton and Golden weren’t drafted by any team.

Hilton has been a pleasant surprise all season, but Sensabaugh and Golden were pressed into duty because of injuries to Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, and Keith Butler deserves at least some credit for their production.

The Steelers have been vulnerable to the big play, however, and the absence of Haden and Mitchell has magnified that. The Steelers allowed touchdown passes of 60 and 61 yards on Sunday at Indianapolis and a 75-yarder Thursday to Rishard Matthews that cut their lead to 16-14 11 seconds into the second half.

The Steelers have allowed seven pass plays of 40-plus yards this year. The aforementioned 2010 squad allowed seven for the entire season. In most other categories, however, this defense is standing up well to that 2010 measuring stick.

With 34 sacks through 10 games, the Steelers are on pace for 54, which would surpass the 48 the 2010 team recorded. This season, the Steelers are allowing just under 17 points per game. In 2010, they yielded 14.5 points per game.

In the department that transcends both sides of the ball, wins and losses, the Steelers (8-2) are reaching heights that not even the 2010 team could reach at this stage of the season. This is the franchise’s best record through 10 games since 2004, when they went 15-1 in Roethlisberger’s rookie year.

The only other seasons the Steelers have been 8-2 since the days of the Steel Curtain are 2001 and 1983. None of those 8-2 teams got past the AFC championship game, but this year’s Steelers have at least proven something.

When they fell behind 17-3 at Indianapolis, it was reminiscent of the 17-0 hole they fell into at the 4-12 Jets in 2014 (a game they lost 20-13) and the 13-3 deficit they faced at 5-11 Baltimore in 2015 (a game they lost 20-17). They showed more fight this time and came back to win.

Unlike Sunday’s game against the 3-7 Colts, Thursday’s matchup wasn’t supposed to be easy. The Titans (6-4) had won four straight and were jockeying with the Steelers, Patriots and Chiefs for a first-round playoff bye. Three times in the game they narrowed two-score Steelers leads to one-score margins. The Steelers finally broke the game open against a good team with a 17-point fourth quarter.

The Steelers were much kinder to LeBeau during post-game handshakes than they were to his defense during the game. He’s still revered in Pittsburgh even though Butler is now out from under his shadow.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

 

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