Friday, September 11, 2009
Close call leaves Titans with big questions
By Paul Kuharsky ESPN.com
Jason Miller/US Presswire
Vincent Fuller can't watch after Jeff Reed's game-winning field goal Thursday night.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
PITTSBURGH -- For a good share of opening night at Heinz Field, it sure felt like the Tennessee Titans were in control.
The Pittsburgh Steelers barely tried to run the ball. Tennessee’s defense was finding its way to Ben Roethlisberger. The Titans' offense was effective in spurts and at least gaining position for field goals.
But in a way that felt eerily similar to the Titans’ last game, January’s divisional round playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the scoreboard didn’t reflect the feel of the game.
And in the end when the Titans lost 13-10 in overtime, it was fair to wonder if finishing against a good team is an issue that held up over eight months.
“This team needs learn how to finish then,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “Maybe that’s the missing piece then to get over the hump. The last two games, we were in control, had ourselves in position to win and we didn’t come out on top.
“To play great football for that long and not come out on top two games in a row, two pretty big games in a row, it might be something to look at. But that’s something for us as a team to adjust as players.”
When it was over, after I’d made my way through the locker room and fleshed some things out, it still felt like there was one question lingering for each unit.
Offense: Scoring is the obvious issue, but the offense gained position for two makeable first-half field goals that could have changed the complexion of the game. We’ll cover those situations under special teams.
Quarterback Kerry Collins hung in against a super-difficult defense. Running backs Chris Johnson and LenDale White ran it well enough, combining for a functional 3.4 yards a carry. Receivers made plays, too, with Kenny Britt accounting for the game’s longest gain when he slipped free for a 57-yard catch on the Titans’ touchdown drive. Justin Gage scored on a 14-yard throw.
But the upgraded passing game got three catches for 1 yard from former Steeler Nate Washington. It saw Britt misplay a deep ball from Collins. Britt could only watch in vain as Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu made an acrobatic interception.
“I misread the ball when I was coming out. ... I need to make a play on the ball,” Britt said. “It was a great catch by him. A rookie mistake. You learn, ‘if I can’t get it, nobody gets it.’”
Gage, a member of the old guard who stands to be a bigger and more consistent contributor, made some nice plays. But on a third-and-10 from their own 30, the Titans were desperate for a fourth-period conversion just before the two-minute warning. Collins threw for Gage down the middle. The ball was hardly perfect, but Gage got his hands on it. He might have heard safety Tyrone Carter -- who replaced an injured Polamalu -- closing in search of a kill shot. The pass skidded away. A completion there could have set the Titans on course to move down the field for a winning field goal in regulation.
"Anytime you get your hands on the ball, there is a play to be made," Gage said. "If I can touch the ball, I can catch it. I just didn’t come up with it ... I don’t think we showed ourselves to the fullest. I think we showed glimpses of what we can do. We left some plays out there and didn’t finish some drives."
Can they make the clutch catch at the game’s biggest moment?
Defense: The pass rush was spectacular at times and finished with four sacks and eight hits against Roethlisberger.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil said the team rushed four, blitzed and faked, mixing things up to be unpredictable.
“When you bring people, he’s got answers, so are you willing to live with the answers?” Cecil said of the Steelers' quarterback. “We didn’t go one way. We basically tried to play a little bit of both. I thought we were successful for a lot of the game and obviously didn’t get it done late in the game or in overtime because you’ve got to get off the field and we didn’t do that.”
On Pittsburgh's fourth-quarter drive to tie the game at 10-10 and the overtime march to win it, there were some plays where Roethlisberger threw quickly into spaces that didn’t seem to close quickly enough once the ball arrived.
In those two drives, up until to the 22-yard pass to Mike Wallace that set up the winning kick, Roethlisberger’s passes went like this: 7 yards, 5, 9, 3, 10, 15, 8, incomplete, 11, 8, 8, 11 and incomplete.
"It's kind of like a helter-skelter offense where he pretty much baits you to try to make a play to where they can run a route off of it," said Chris Hope, a one-time teammate of Roethlisberger’s.
What’s the answer to the little stuff?
Special teams: Place-kicker Rob Bironas missed a 37-yard field goal attempt wide right. Later, he saw a 31-yard attempt blocked by Aaron Smith.
“I had a field goal blocked and a field goal missed,” Titans head coach Jeff Fisher said, offering more when prompted. On the block there was penetration inside, on the miss the snap was low and despite a good hold Bironas was thrown off, Fisher said.
A team that is built for close games and relishes winning that way needs to be more dependable in such situations. It can’t afford a 28-yard shanked punt by Craig Hentrich in crunch time, either.
Shouldn’t a team with five preseason games of work be sharper in those departments?