PITTSBURGH — Another uninspiring half in the books in a season littered with them for a team that expects to play deep into January and beyond, Ben Roethlisberger decided he had seen enough.
So the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback decided it was time to speak up. The defence had kept the Tennessee Titans and star Marcus Mariota in check, yet a game that had the makings of a blowout didn't feel like one mostly because the offence kept squandering chance after chance.
"He didn't call anyone out, he called all of us out," guard David DeCastro said. "Linemen. Receivers. Himself. Running backs. Purely positive. It was a challenge. He challenged us. The guys responded."
None better than the 35-year-old Roethlisberger. Running the no-huddle offence to near perfection, Roethlisberger threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns, three to Antonio Brown, as the Steelers pulled away for a 40-17 victory.
"I don't care if you're old or young, just someone has to step up and make a play for this team or else we are going to keep relying on our defence," said Roethlisberger, who went 20 of 23 for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. "It is time that we step up and do something."
Brown caught 10 passes for 144 yards and the three scores, including an acrobatic grab in the back of the end zone in which he pinned the ball to his helmet before bringing it in to put Pittsburgh up 20 in the fourth quarter as the Steelers set a season-high for points and margin of victory.
"We've talked so much about having the potential in this room, but we can still strive for more," said defensive end Cam Heyward, who had two of Pittsburgh's five sacks. "We're a hungry group that still has a lot to prove. We're chasing ghosts. We're trying to be the best defence. That's what we strive for."
For long stretches, the Steelers (8-2) looked the part while extending their winning streak to five.
Though Mariota ran for a touchdown and threw for another, he was also picked off a career-high four times as the Titans (6-4) saw their four-game winning streak come to a crashing halt. Mariota finished 22 of 33 for 306 yards but was under pressure much of the night.
"When you play teams that are this calibre that are contenders, that win week in and week out, that's the blueprint," Mariota said. "We're going to learn from it. We're going to get better from it and hopefully we'll see them again."
There's plenty to work on. Tennessee appeared to be in it when Mariota found Matthews with a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to get to 16-14.
Then Roethlisberger and the NFL's highest-paid offence got going. Finally. Roethlisberger dropped some very not subtle hints that he wanted the freedom provided by the no-huddle after the Steelers used it to pick the Colts apart during the winning drive last Sunday in Indianapolis.
Offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley appeared to be listening.
Pittsburgh opened in the no huddle and needed just six plays to take the lead as Roethlisberger took advantage of a free play and hit Brown with a 41-yard rainbow. Mike Hilton then returned Mariota's interception to set up the first of Chris Boswell's four field goals and the Steelers appeared on the verge of another prime-time blowout at home.
The blowout did eventually arrive, just not quickly.
The offence ground to a halt for the rest of the half, held in check by former defensive co-ordinator Dick LeBeau. The Hall of Famer spent 12 years building a defence that helped Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl victories before being ushered out in favour of protege Keith Butler in January 2015. The 80-year-old is in the middle of his latest project with the steadily improving Titans.
Yet the gap between Tennessee and Pittsburgh remains significant. The proof came after Mathews' long catch-and-run appeared to give the Titans momentum.
The Steelers reeled off three straight touchdown drives. Roethlisberger found a leaping Brown for a 5-yard score restored a nine-point lead, executed a perfect play-action fake at the goal line before flipping it to a wide-open Jesse James for a 1-yard strike and put the Titans away with a lob to the back corner of the end zone that Brown somehow hauled in from 10 yards out that made it 37-17.
Pittsburgh rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster knelt down and bowed to Brown during the giddy celebration. Hard to blame the 20-year-old. For the first time all season, the Steelers put it all together and looked every bit like a team with a legitimate threat to live up to its own hype.
Titans: Visit Indianapolis on Nov. 26. Tennessee beat the Colts 36-22 on Oct. 16.
Steelers: Welcome the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 26, the second of four straight prime-time games for Pittsburgh.
More AP NFL: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL