PITTSBURGH — The Steelers entered Thursday’s game with the No. 2 pass defense in the NFL.
But half of its secondary was also out with injuries.
Carnell Lake had one of those four interceptions, and two decades later he was coaching a patchwork group that intercepted its way to a 40-17 win over the Titans.
“As the game wore on, you just felt the momentum,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Oftentimes those splash plays are created by game circumstances, or an accumulation of blows, if you will, so it was good for us.”
The first interception came on the Titans’ first series when the Steelers moved nickel slot corner Mike Hilton back to free safety and he intercepted an overthrown Mariota pass and returned it 26 yards to set up a field goal that gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead.
“He doesn’t drop back there very often,” Steelers strong safety Sean Davis said. “It was just one of our defenses though. We mix it up a little bit and it worked out well for us.”
“Mike really set the tone,” Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “It was early in the game, first series, and that’s the way you envision a game to go. Mike came out with his first pick and he set the game up. Coty came in and got a pick, so that was pretty nice to see both of them make those plays. After a while, we just took care of business.”
It was Hilton’s second interception in his first NFL season, while Coty Sensabaugh, starting for the injured Joe Haden, made his first interception as a Steeler. It occurred late in the second quarter with the Steelers holding a 10-7 lead.
A former starter in Tennessee, Sensabaugh stepped in front of Titans receiver Corey Davis at midfield and returned the interception to the Tennessee 20. The play also set up a field goal, this one gave the Steelers a 13-7 lead.
“Coty’s first interception in the first half kind of set up our offense,” Steelers free safety Rob Golden said. “It gave us a cushion to play the type of football that we like to play. I feel like that one was significant, but all of them are significant when you’re out there setting up field position for your offense.”
Golden, filling in for the injured Mike Mitchell, grabbed the third interception off a pass break-up by cornerback Artie Burns early in the fourth quarter. By then the Steelers were ahead by 37-17, so Golden’s interception may have been a result of Tomlin’s aforementioned “accumulation of blows.”
The high-bouncing ball was grabbed by Golden to give the offense the ball at the Pittsburgh 48. The Steelers drove slowly for another field goal, this one the final points of the blowout win.
Davis intercepted Mariota’s final pass, a fourth-down play that Davis returned 41 yards to the Tennessee 41 with only 2:22 remaining.
The Steelers did allow 264 passing yards — 82 above their average coming into the game — with the help of a 75-yard touchdown pass to Rishard Matthews. But the four interceptions jumped the team’s season total from eight to 12.
“The rush did a great job, made the quarterback throw some crazy throws,” Davis said. “The defense did a good job on a short week. We did a good job recognizing what they were trying to do to us. We did a good job of disguising and breaking on routes.”
“We believe in all those guys,” Shazier said. “We know that they can make plays no matter who’s in.”