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|Tennessee running back Chris Johnson was part of two agressive fourth-down plays by the Titans en route to a 31-14 win over Pittsburgh.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For 30 minutes, Jeff Fisher played territorial football, worrying about field position above all else. It was traditional Titans.
But at the half, a coach known for relying on his defense and his willingness to settle for field goals or punt the ball away, saw the need to shape the game differently. It sparked a stunningly complete 31-14 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that determined AFC playoff seeding supremacy.
Steelers-Titans featured big hits, sacks and tackles for losses, but it opened up with more scoring opportunities than Fisher anticipated. And when it did, he didn't fight it, he allowed for it.
So twice on fourth downs with his team well in the range of kicker Rob Bironas, Fisher elected to keep his offense on the field. A week after a failed fourth-down play cost the Titans a chance to win in Houston, he gave the green light twice more -- with spectacular results.
The two plays:
With 5:12 on the clock in the third quarter, down four points and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 21-yard line, Kerry Collins faked an inside handoff to fullback Ahmard Hall, then pitched the ball behind him to the left to Chris Johnson. As the Titans anticipated, a cornerback -- Ike Taylor -- was all that was between the rookie running back and the first down, and Johnson easily juked Taylor. He then chomped up the remaining yards too, scoring a touchdown that put the Titans ahead for good, 17-14.
Next series, with the ball back thanks to the first of two Michael Griffin interceptions with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Fisher gave the nod again. On fourth-and-3 at Pittsburgh's 30, Collins fired a pass up the right side perfectly fitted between defenders to Justin Gage for 17 yards. The Titans scored another touchdown to complete the drive.
What did Fisher have to say about the aggressiveness?
"I didn't feel like field goals were going to win this ball game," Fisher said. "Because of the way their defense was playing and the way their offense has the potential to play. We get down to the plus territory, we take a shot at it and we got it, it worked for us.
"A lot of it is just a gut reaction. To me, you evaluate the flow of the game, you assess what you anticipate happening. Keep this in mind, before that, they missed a field goal, they fumbled it on the 5-yard line, they were moving the ball. You like to assume that your defense is going to make the stops, and we did. But, still, in a game like this you have to be aggressive. You have to play it to win it. We played our field position game in the first half. The second half was time to go win in."
Some Titans diehards will read and reread those two paragraphs blinking hard and wondering if they are misattributed. Because that's the sort of talk they've wished to hear on so many tense Sundays when they were left to watch Bironas or Joe Nedney or Gary Anderson or Al Del Greco wind up the hero or goat after close, conservative games.
All the bedrocks of Fisher's stability -- the balanced temperament, the ability to endure a bad stretch, the unwavering faith in the organization's philosophy and scheme, the patience -- come intertwined with a default to conservatism.
The field goal has almost always been his friend.
Now, in three huge moments over the course of three weeks, he hasn't pointed to Bironas. The net against the Steelers was eight additional points -- two touchdowns instead of two field goals. The bounce-back win over the Steelers and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs make it feel like significantly more than that.
The Titans came into the game as the No. 2 scoring defense and they gave up their typical two touchdowns. But it's the scoring offense that will get a boost in the new ratings after putting up a touchdown more than anyone else has on the Steelers this season, even if that extra seven came on Griffin's 83-yard interception return.
"I think to beat a team like the Steelers, you've got to be aggressive," Collins said. "And I thought [offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger] made several aggressive calls today, certainly the two fourth down ones were huge, and I think we executed very well."
The Titans play at Indianapolis next week. The Colts, thanks to their Thursday night victory in Jacksonville, are locked into the No. 5 spot in the AFC field. The Titans now have nothing at stake either. Indy will offer no true test for the Titans, who are headed toward a bye and a divisional-round matchup.
That's another reason this one was so big.
"Coach Fisher told us [Saturday] night this game is about the best team playing together and gaining momentum going into the playoffs," safety Chris Hope said. "He made a real important statement that this was the only chance for that. I think the Indianapolis Colts are going to rest their guys next week, we wouldn't be really getting a full test of the playoff level football that we have to prepare for. So this was a good chance for us, a good test for us."
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said the game was "a signature performance out there and our name is signed to it; they played winning football, we didn't."
The Titans are proud to have their autograph on this one. They'll keep the pen, hoping to use it again.