NFL Nation: Titans-Steelers 091009

More Steelers observations

September, 11, 2009
9/11/09
12:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- With Troy Polamalu’s knee injury and the Steelers’ overtime victory over the Tennessee Titans, there were several things I was unable to get to late Thursday night.

So now that I’ve had more time to reflect on the game, here are several additional observations on the Steelers:
 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Santonio Holmes was a reliable target Thursday night, hauling in nine passes for 131 yards.
  • Let’s start with the good: Santonio Holmes looks primed for a 1,000-yard season. Against the Titans the receiver had nine receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown, which were the same totals from his Super Bowl-MVP performance. The difference I’m seeing now from Holmes is he’s making all the routine plays in addition to the spectacular ones. Holmes didn’t leave any opportunities on the field Thursday. He was thrown to 11 times and nine were receptions. The Steelers won’t pass 43 times every week (at least I don’t think they will). But it’s clear Holmes is capable of putting up big numbers when needed.
  • As indicated in the preseason, the Steelers were much improved on special teams against the Titans. In a field-position battle punter Daniel Sepulveda turned out to be one of Pittsburgh’s most important players. He punted seven times for an average of 42.7 yards per punt. But most importantly he placed four kicks inside the 20. Stefan Logan added 127 yards in returns and a blocked field goal by defensive end Aaron Smith made a huge difference in a close game. Veteran Jeff Reed also made two clutch kicks in the fourth quarter and overtime to seal the victory, capping a banner night for Pittsburgh's third phase of the game.
  • Looking ahead the Steelers really needed this win over Tennessee. Pittsburgh goes on the road two straight weeks against the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals and doesn’t return to Heinz Field until the month of October. Playing the next three to six weeks without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu also will be a challenge for the Steelers. But it’s a little easier when you’re the first NFL team to get in the win column this season.
  • Now for the bad: Loyal readers of the AFC North blog know I’ve been skeptical of Pittsburgh’s offensive line entering the year and Thursday’s performance confirmed my skepticism. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked four times by the Titans. By my account, two were on Roethlisberger for holding the football and scrambling too long, and two were from lack of protection. But what jumped out most Thursday was the run blocking. The Steelers weren’t physical and couldn’t hold their blocks very long. They have nine days to straighten out those issues. Of Pittsburgh's five up linemen, I thought starting guard Trai Essex had the most problems against Tennessee.
  • Finally, I’m going to offer the Steelers some free advice: Call up Isaac Redman from the practice squad. After watching Pittsburgh’s running backs get stuffed at the line of scrimmage time after time, I’m convinced “Redzone” is the best short-yardage option the team has. It’s not the end of the world to carry four tailbacks, and Redman rightfully won’t be the primary option. But even if he gets two carries a game that result in two first downs, he's worth the roster spot. The Steelers cannot expect to win every week going 4 of 14 on third-down conversions.

No-huddle saves Pittsburgh

September, 11, 2009
9/11/09
2:50
AM ET

 
 Jason Miller/US Presswire
 With the running game struggling, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put the offense on his shoulders and led the Steelers to a victory.

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- For three-and-a-half quarters Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense owned a rare trifecta.

The unit couldn’t run. It couldn’t pass. It couldn’t block.

Yet in crunch time, Pittsburgh made a difficult decision. It went against the grain -- and its long-standing identity -- and utilized a shotgun-style, no-huddle offense in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Titans-Steelers Coverage
• Walker: No-huddle saves Steelers
• Kuharsky: Titans seeking answers
• Rapid Reaction from the game
• NFL Nation: Blog posts from game
• Game: Steelers win in OT


Suddenly the Steelers could pass, they could block, and they could even run at times when needed. The result was a 13-10 season-opening overtime victory over the stubborn Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.

After stalling most of the night, the Steelers flipped the switch and went Tom Brady on the Titans to the tune of 363 passing yards. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw the football 43 times, which is a two-game total for him in some weeks. The ploy brought out the best in the offense and its quarterback when it mattered.

The quick-hitting, no-huddle offense helped the Steelers gain 173 yards on their final three drives, which resulted in the game-tying and game-winning field goals by kicker Jeff Reed in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Is this something the defending Super Bowl champions could go to all season?

“Maybe,” said Roethlisberger smiling, showing he’s not completely opposed to the idea.

The Steelers tried to control the clock and run the football early. But the combination of a very good Titans defense and a porous and inconsistent Steelers running game made it nearly impossible to stick to the original game plan.

It was clear after the first quarter that Pittsburgh could not win this game on the ground. The Steelers’ first four runs amounted to minus-4 yards. On the night, they gained 36 yards on the ground in 23 carries, which is an awful 1.6 yards per carry. Willie Parker led the team with 19 yards on 13 carries, and his longest run was for 8 yards.

Even in victory, this was an atypical night for the Steelers (1-0).

Pittsburgh had two 100-yard receivers in Santonio Holmes (131 yards) and Hines Ward (103 yards). The pass-to-run ratio was nearly double in favor of the pass, 43-to-23. Special teams were exceptional all night. Yet the Steelers' defense gave up a touchdown by being sloppy right before halftime.

Overall, it was so not 2008.
 
 Jason Miller/US Presswire
 The Steelers celebrate Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal that won the game in overtime.


“We talked about ... winning the trench warfare. We didn’t do that,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who admitted the reigning champs have a lot of work ahead of them. “I thought we had to take care of the football and win the turnover battle because [Titans quarterback] Kerry Collins is great at taking care of the football. We didn’t do that. Chances are the more violent team usually wins. The jury is out on that.”

Another thing that wasn’t 2008 was losing Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. While trying to recover a blocked field goal attempt in the second quarter, Titans tight end Alge Crumpler fell awkwardly on Polamalu’s knee. The Steelers star didn’t return to the game.

Tomlin said afterward that Polamalu has an MCL sprain in his left knee and speculated that he could be out of the lineup for the next three to six weeks. Still, the defense held firm and only allowed three points in the second half and overtime, which was enough to preserve the victory. But Collins managed a solid performance, notching 244 yards, one touchdown, one interception and an 81.1 passer rating, with most of his success coming with Polamalu out of the game.

“I was telling [Steelers backup quarterback] Charlie [Batch], when he’s not out there, it’s just not the same,” Roethlisberger said of missing Polamalu. “He’s just a phenomenal player and you could see it tonight. We wish him a speedy, speedy recovery.”

How Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense from a year ago adjusts to life without Polamalu will be one of the season's most interesting storylines.

There are a lot of plays that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has built around Polamalu’s unique talent and leadership. So there is a very good chance Pittsburgh’s defensive playbook will be condensed over the next several weeks. Backup safety Tyrone Carter replaced Polamalu in the second half and recorded one tackle.

The great news for the Steelers is they earned an important victory against a likely playoff contender in the AFC. Teams can never predict how things will shake out with potential tiebreakers down the road.

Pittsburgh also won its seventh straight season opener, which is the longest streak in the NFL. Tomlin's crew has 10 days to prepare for its next game, Sept. 20 on the road against the Chicago Bears.

“Hopefully we will learn some lessons so the road will be a little less bumpy next time,” Tomlin said. “Such is life in the NFL. We will take the victory.”

video

 
 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.
Titans-Steelers Coverage
• Walker: No-huddle saves Steelers
• Kuharsky: Titans seeking answers
• Rapid Reaction from the game
• NFL Nation: Blog posts from game
• Game: Steelers win in OT


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?


video

Pittsburgh wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes talk about the Steelers' overtime win over the Titans Thursday night.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky


PITTSBURGH -- So much went right for the Titans Thursday night at Heinz Field. Even so, they dropped the season opener to the Steelers, 13-10.

Looking back, they’ve got a lot of things to regret, first among them the kicking game. A missed field goal by Rob Bironas and a blocked field goal in the first half might have made the difference. They were lucky a shanked punt by Craig Hentrich late in the game didn’t.

They didn’t win the overtime coin toss either, and when the pass pressure that fizzled late in regulation didn’t resurface, Ben Roethlisberger did what he often does: played clutch in a game’s decisive moments.

He pump-faked and passed the Steelers to an impressive win in a memorable game, capped by Jeff Reed’s 33-yard field goal.

Jeff Fisher’s team was 10-0 last season before losing. This time around they won’t deal with any of the perks or pressures of a long, undefeated run at season’s start.

When their upcoming opponents watch film of this one, they still get a strong message: The Titans are a tough team that will put up a fight.

And if you don’t have a super-courageous quarterback nicknamed "Big Ben," who will stand in the pocket, worry-free waiting for people to come open, you may have a tough time beating them.

video

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- It wasn’t pretty. But the defending champions earned a hard-fought, marquee win against the team with the best regular-season record in the NFL last year.

The Pittsburgh Steelers made just enough plays in the fourth quarter and overtime to edge the Tennessee Titans, 13-10, in a season-opening slugfest. Jeff Reed made the 33-yard field goal in overtime to seal it.

The performance was far from perfect, particularly offensively. Pittsburgh didn’t run well, struggled to pass protect at times, and veteran receiver Hines Ward fumbled the football in the waning moments of regulation.

Even with the win, the Steelers still suffered a potentially significant loss.

Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu went down with a left knee injury in the second quarter. He was trying to recover a blocked field goal and Titans tight end Alge Crumpler fell awkwardly on his leg. But even without Polamalu, Pittsburgh’s top-rated defense from a year ago held firm and allowed just three points in the second half.

We will have an update on Polamalu and reaction from the Steelers locker room soon.

UPDATE: Polamalu has an MCL sprain in his left knee. Coach Mike Tomlin speculated Polamalu could be out three to six weeks.

video

Steelers and Titans into overtime

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
11:37
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- Veteran receiver Hines Ward made a rookie mistake against the Tennessee Titans.

The Pittsburgh Steelers star fumbled in the final minute trying to get more yards in their final drive of the fourth quarter. The fumble turned what could have been a late touchdown or a field goal by Pittsburgh into overtime.

Ward is extremely upset with himself on the sideline. He banged his helmet several times as teammates tried to calm him down.

We will have rapid reaction as soon as this slugfest is over.

Scaife has sprained left knee

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
11:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


PITTSBURGH -- Bo Scaife has a knee sprain and the Titans are using Craig Stevens in his place.

Stevens is much more of a blocker than a pass-catcher. However, the Titans came into the game without rookie tight end Jared Cook, who was an excellent pass-catcher for them through training camp and the preseason. Cook has an ankle injury.

Scaife is on the bench with an ice bag on his left knee and doesn’t look like he’ll be returning. He had five catches for 48 yards.

He fumbled on the play where he got hurt as James Harrison hit him, but the Steelers couldn’t turn the takeaway into points.

Alge Crumpler also gets significant time as a Titans tight end. He had a drop early on.

Polamalu out for game

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
10:32
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

 Polamalu

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu did not return for the second half against Tennessee Titans and is ruled out for the game.

Polamalu was trying to recover a blocked field goal in the first half when Titans tight end Alge Crumpler fell awkwardly on Polamalu’s left knee. We will try to get an update on Polamalu’s status after the game.

Tyrone Carter is playing in place of Polamalu and it will be interesting to see how the Steelers respond in their season opener without one of their top players.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


PITTSBURGH -- A few quick thoughts at the half of what’s been a great 7-7 game.
  • After both teams struggled to find the end zone, both got looser in 2-minute scenarios. Tennessee safety Chris Hope bit on two Ben Roethlisberger pump fakes as the Steelers hit two big passes. Then Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark got a bit lost on two big pass plays from Kerry Collins.
  • If Troy Polamalu (left knee) and LaMarr Woodley (cramp) don’t come back, obviously that’s a big edge for the Titans. Woodley was classified as probable, Polamalu is now officially out. Both players were out on the Titans’ touchdown drive.
  • Kenny Britt got the big gainer of the half, a 57-yard reception where he was wide open on the Titans’ scoring drive. But he had Polamalu take a ball away with an impressive one-handed interception when he thought the pass was getting through and could have broken it up if he had a better sense of things. Later, he failed to come hard out of a break, allowing Ike Taylor to break up the pass.
  • I didn’t see if anything led to what looked like a Rob Bironas shank wide right from 37 yards, or who broke down along the line if he wasn’t at fault on the Aaron Smith block of a 31-yarder. But this isn’t the kind of game where anyone can easily make up for six lost points.

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are tied, 7-7, with the Tennessee Titans after one half at Heinz Field.

Here are some halftime observations:
  • Steelers safety Troy Polamalu had an ugly spill at the end of the second quarter trying to recover a blocked field goal. Titans tight end Alge Crumpler fell on his left knee, and Polamalu went into the locker room under his own power. His return in the second half is listed as questionable. Tennessee later drove down the field with ease without Polamalu in the lineup for its only touchdown of the half.
  • How ironic that Pittsburgh’s first touchdown of the 2009 season involved the same combination that ended the 2008 season? Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected on a 34-yard laser to receiver Santonio Holmes toward the end of the half to give the Steelers a touchdown lead. The Steelers went to an up-tempo offense at the end of the quarter and it gave Tennessee trouble. It will be interesting to see if they stick with that approach in the second half.
  • The upgrades on special teams were apparent for Pittsburgh. CFL import Stefan Logan gained 50 yards on his first two returns (one kickoff, one punt). Punter Daniel Sepulveda also helped with field position and defensive end Aaron Smith blocked a key field goal before halftime that would have given the Titans an early lead. Last year, Pittsburgh’s special teams hurt the Steelers more than it helped.
  • Roethlisberger moved up to second all-time in franchise completions, surpassing Kordell Stewart. Roethlisberger also became the second Pittsburgh quarterback to surpass 15,000 yards for his career.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


PITTSBURGH -- In a tight game where the first score could do a lot to the crowd’s mood, the Titans have blown the game’s best two chances.

Rob Bironas missed a 37-yard field goal wide right and just had a 31-yarder blocked by Aaron Smith in what remains a 0-0 game.

Question on the third-down play just before the block: Didn’t James Farrior deliver a hit with his helmet to the head of Justin Gage, who should have qualified as a defenseless receiver in the back of the end zone?

Gage got his hands on the Kerry Collins’ pass but it fell incomplete.

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers offense is sputtering out the gates.

Big time.

Pittsburgh was held scoreless in the first quarter, and it wasn’t pretty. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger telegraphed an interception. The running game has been non-existent so far, and the offensive line has given up two sacks.

Give credit to Tennessee’s defense, which is one of the NFL’s best. The unit looks a step ahead of Pittsburgh's offense in the early going.

So far, it looks like it will be a defensive struggle.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


PITTSBURGH -- The sacks are still coming.

Jason Jones knocked the Steelers out of field goal range with his, dropping Ben Roethlisberger for a 19-yard loss. Tony Brown just ended another drive with a 9-yard sack.

Brown’s sack came as part of a big blitz.

Extra rushers or not, the Titans are finding the same sort of pass pressure they did last year when they beat the Steelers in Nashville.

If it keeps coming, Pittsburgh could have issues.

Big night for Fox

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
8:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- One of the interesting things to watch early in Thursday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans will be the performance of backup linebacker Keyaron Fox.
 Fox


Fox, 27, is replacing inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (ankle) in the starting lineup of a huge season opener for both teams.

This is the fifth career start for Fox and his first in Pittsburgh. He had a good preseason for the Steelers, but primarily a special-teams player, Fox will need to step up his game even further against the run-heavy Titans.

Pittsburgh released veteran linebacker Larry Foote this offseason to get Timmons into the starting lineup. But that also hurt Pittsburgh’s depth, leaving Fox with some big shoes to fill.

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