PITTSBURGH — Joe Haden spent a month watching the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense flail without him.
The veteran defensive back's return to the playing field provided a spark Sunday afternoon, and all of his offseason lifting provided the difference against the Tennessee Titans.
Haden stuffed wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine inches short of a first down at the Pittsburgh 10-yard line in the final seconds, sealing a 19-13 victory that resuscitated the Steelers' playoff hopes and dealt Tennessee its third loss in the past four games.
Facing fourth-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 16, Ryan Tannehill found Westbrook-Ikhine at the 10. Haden, who missed four games with a sprained foot, closed in immediately and shoved Westbrook-Ihkine backward. When the official measurement confirmed what Haden already knew — that the ball was coming to the Steelers and the game was over — Pittsburgh's defense celebrated a win that marked another abrupt momentum shift in the team's topsy-turvy season.
"He's Joe Money," Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt said. "He's just a vet. He makes a lot of those really smart, veteran plays."
Pittsburgh (7-6-1) needed every one of them on an afternoon in which its offense managed all of 168 yards.
Its defense came up with four takeaways — three on consecutive Tennessee possessions in the second half — just 10 days after getting mauled in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Chris Boswell drilled four field goals, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's first rushing touchdown in three years gave the AFC North's Steelers their second win over a division leader in three weeks.
"When you've got teams like this and environments like this, every game is a playoff," Roethlisberger said. "It had the feel of a playoff game, physically, emotionally."
If not optically.
The Titans (9-5) couldn't hold on to the ball. The Steelers couldn't move it. The result was three hours of push-pull in which Tennessee kept flirting with taking full command only to hand momentum right back to Pittsburgh with careless turnover after careless turnover, including a bungled exchange between Tannehill and center Ben Jones that set up Boswell's final field goal.
Tennessee has given the ball away 13 times in this 1-3 stretch that follows a six-game winning streak. For a team with designs on a deep postseason run, it's a pattern that simply can't continue. And the Titans know it.
"We talk about it on the field," Tannehill said. "We talk about it during practice. We emphasize it and work drills to have good ball security and finish. Just, unfortunately, we're not translating it right now. We have to find a way as an offense, everybody who is involved, to carry over what we work in practice onto the football field on Sundays."
While the Titans remain in control of the AFC South with three games remaining, the reigning division champions missed out on a chance to leapfrog the New England Patriots (9-5) — who lost on Saturday night to the Indianapolis Colts (8-6), the only AFC South team besides Tennessee not eliminated from the postseason chase — for the inside track on home-field advantage in the conference playoffs and the bye that comes with it.
The Titans rushed for 202 yards, including 108 by D'Onta Foreman, controlled possession for more than 39 minutes and converted eight of 18 third-down opportunities. Tannehill even notched his seventh touchdown run of the season, but he struggled to find any rhythm in the passing game. It took him 23 completions to throw for 153 yards and he was sacked four times, including 1.5 by Watt, whose 17.5 this season are a franchise record.
Tennessee committed five turnovers while getting upset by the Houston Texans in Nashville on Nov. 21, then gave it away four times while getting drilled at New England a week later. After their open date and a lackluster but mistake-free victory over the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars, the Titans appeared to be headed back in the right direction.
Their trip to Pittsburgh suggested otherwise, despite doing so much to give themselves a chance to win.
Tennessee's defense sacked Roethlisberger three times, limited standout rookie running back Najee Harris to 18 yards on 12 carries, held Pittsburgh to 2-of-11 on third down and didn't give up a play longer than 19 yards.
"We just didn't play better than their defense," Titans safety Kevin Byard said. "Their defense came up and made some plays. That's the way it goes."
Haden, Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick all recovered fumbles, while linebacker Joe Schobert hauled in a Tannehill pass deflected by backup outside linebacker Taco Charlton and returned it 23 yards to set up Boswell's third field goal that gave Pittsburgh a 16-13 lead with 7:20 to go.
Asked if the game "got away" from his team, Titans coach Mike Vrabel bristled.
"No, it didn't look like that to me," he said. "It looked like we came up a few inches short on fourth down."
The Titans were headed home with little time to reflect — they host the San Francisco 49ers (8-6) on Thursday night — but that might be just as well.
"It's a sick feeling," Tannehill said. "Any time you walk away with a loss, it's a sick feeling."