Two of the AFC’s best teams in 2008 clashed at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Thursday night to open the 2009 NFL season, and like in last year’s game in Nashville, the home team came out victorious in a hard-fought game as the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers topped the Titans, 13-10 in overtime.
As the 13-10 score would indicate, the game was a hard-fought defensive struggle. Both teams were only able to reach the end zone a single team, in both cases in the last two minutes of the first half. The two teams then exchanged field goals in the fourth quarter. The Steelers looked like they would come away with a late field goal in a reprise of the Titans’ last actual game, but Michael Griffin forced a Hines Ward fumble to send the game to the extra session. The Steelers won the coin toss and were able to drive down the field on the opening possession for a 33 yard field goal.
For a blow-by-blow account of the game, check out the liveblog I did. For thoughts on various players and units, see after the jump.
As you might guess from the Titans only putting up 10 points, the offense struggled a lot against what will probably again be a formidable Steeler defense. In particular, as was the case in last year’s game, the Titans, and CJ28 in particular, struggled to run the ball consistently for success. Johnson finished with 15 carries for 57 yards, 32 of which came on a single first half carry. White was a little more consistent, but only had 8 carries for 28 yards. The good news is the Titans’ future opponents probably won’t be as stout against the run. The bad news is, if you take away the run, the Titans will probably struggle offensively.
Kerry Collins did end up with fairly reasonable stats-22 of 35 for 244 yards, 1 TD and 1 interception. That interception came in the first quarter, while the game was still scoreless, on a deep corner route for Kenny Britt. The ball was underthrown, and Steeler S Troy Polamalu, who would leave the game later in the quarter with a knee injury, made a nice one-handed interception Britt should have been able to break up. Collins did do a nice job in the two-minute drill in the first half. Britt let him down on a comeback, then redeemed himself with a 57 yard gain on a nice play against the zone defense and some good running after the catch. The drive was then finished off by a throw to Gage quite similar to the TD in the Cowboys’ preseason game.
Thanks to that big play, Britt led the Titans in receiving yards, with 4 grabs for 85. Gage was Collins’ primary target on the night, with 7 for 78. Bo Scaife was second in receptions, 5 for 48, before leaving the game with a knee injury. With Cook inactive, the Titans had to press Craig Stevens into service as a receiving tight end, but his sole grab was wiped out by a penalty on David Stewart.
Which really gets us to the key problem tonight. Stewart was twice flagged for illegal formation for lining up too far off the line. Turning to the NFL Rulebook, a player is not on the line if “he is not more than one foot behind the neutral zone at the snap. (For a non-snapper to be on the line of scrimmage, the guideline officials will use is that his helmet must break a vertical plane that would pass through the beltline of the snapper.)” On the penalty that wiped out the Stevens’ catch, Stewart’s violation is somewhat understandable, as he’d been off balance and been beat to the outside by Steelers OLB Lamarr Woodley the previous play, but it was still a costly error. The big problem with the pass game was Woodley and others were intermittently able to bring pressure. Kerry responded as he’s been wont to do lately, throwing short (Scaife’s 5 catches) or throwing the ball away. It’s a Jeff Fisher-approved strategy, but not necessarily a rewarding one.
Of course, even with the ineffectiveness of the running game and Collins throwing the ball away at the first signs of pressure, the Titans should still have put more than 10 points on the board. If Britt breaks up the INT as he should, the Titans have the another chance to extend a drive already in Steeler territory. There were also two blown field goals by Rob Bironas in the first half. The first came on a 38 yarder that he misses, simply pulled right. Possible snap issue here, though I didn’t notice one at the time. The second came on a 31 yarder that was blocked. It look like his kick came out a little late, possibly, and definitely low, and pressure up the middle by Steeler NT Casey Hampton, who was a thorn in the side much of the game, resulted in the block.
Staying on special teams, Craig Hentrich generally had a fairly good game, with some long punts to help the Titans out on field position when they were backed up early in the game. He had one costly error, though, shanking a 28 yard kick to give the Steelers good field position in a tie game at the two minute warning. Overall, he had 5 punts that averaged 42 yards, including a 56 yarder that included about 15 of roll. In case you’re interested, I believe A.J. Trapasso is now on the Bucs’ practice squad.
Defensively, the Titans were able to expose the Steelers’ continued run-blocking deficiencies, holding their 3-headed RB attack to 33 yards on 22 carries. 1.5 ypc allowed is pretty good. The defensive line was also able to pick up where they left off early in the game, consistently bringing pressure against Ben Roethlisberger, human sack-taker. Officially, Jones, Kearse, Brown, and Ford + Hayes (0.5 each) got in on the sack party.
The key, though, is, while the Titans got pressure at times, they weren’t able to bring it at all times. BenR generally had enough time to pick apart the Titans’ zone on the drive that led to the game’s opening score late in the first half, and on the field goal drive, and the drive late in the game that could have won it if not for Griffin’s great forced fumble, and on the game-winning drive. The Steelers really mostly abandoned the running game, ending up with 48 called passes and the 22 runs. It paid off, though, as BenR was able to buy time against what looked like a mostly tired defensive line in the fourth quarter and complete pass after pass after pass.
The receiving stats for the Steelers look very good-Holmes, Ward, and TE Heath Miller all had at least 8 catches, but aside from some poor moments by Chris Hope in the two minute drill that set up the TD, I’m not sure who in the secondary actually played that poorly. The completions were the result of some good play by a pretty good quarterback who does some things very well and what looked like a lot of Cover-2 zone coverage reminiscent of the the dimmer years of the Schwartz defense (scheme v players?).
Oh, the returners. Ringer was the kickoff guy. Like I said after the Dallas game, long return there notwithstanding, he’s just not that good at it. Adequate is about all he was, or I think he’ll ever be. Finnegan was pressed into duty as the punt returner. He had a poor non-catch decision that left the Titans at their own 2 early, muffed another punt he tried to catch at the 7, and got popped after giving an incredibly early fair catch signal another time. Ryan Mouton is expected back next week, and I’d expect to see him in that role. Cortland, frankly, was disappointing tonight, and the muff could have cost the Titans the game. He looked much better, really, on an interception return of the Steelers Hail Mary at the end of the first half, but needed to make at least one, maybe two more moves, or show greater field awareness, to replicate Samari Rolle’s return for a TD back in 2000.
As to the coaching, there really weren’t any huge in-game decisions, I felt. The two calls I disagreed with most were failed draws on 3&long inside their own 10-you have a veteran QB, trust him. Chuck Cecil mixed up bringing pressure with rushing only 3, which looks really bad when the opposing QB is getting crushed when you bring pressure and completing passes when you only bring 3. I continue to be impressed with Mike Heimerdinger generally, though, as he had some nice touches to get guys open, like Britt on the long play in the two minute drive or Gage on some third downs.
One note: Scaife, on the play where he got hurt, fumbled the ball. Somebody asked in the chat about the ground causing the fumble. Here’s the rule as it currently stands: “Article 3 Fumble. A fumble is any act, other than a pass or kick, which results in a loss of player possession.” The only exception is if a player is down. A player in Scaife position is down if he “is contacted by a defensive player and he touches the ground with any part of his body except his hands or feet, ball shall be declared dead immediately.” So long as Scaife is not down, and he wasn’t down in that scenario, it’s a fumble.
Titans fans, feel free to share your thoughts on the game.