Second-stringer Matt Hasselbeck
helped lead the Titans
into field-goal position late on Thursday. (US PRESSWIRE)
The notion of age is a funny thing when it comes to the NFL.
Take Thursday's 26-23 Tennessee win over the Steelers, for example.
On one side of things, you have 34-year-old linebacker James Harrison, still working his way back from a lingering knee injury. With the game tied at 23 and Tennessee driving for a potential game-winning score, Harrison found himself locked one-on-one in coverage with tight end Jared Cook on a 3rd-and-5.
Pittsburgh's blitz failed to get home and Harrison, a shadow of his former self, could not stay with Cook. Not only did Cook make the catch, but he turned upfield for 25 yards, which put the Titans well within Rob Bironas' field-goal range.
On the other side of the ball was 37-year-old Matt Hasselbeck. He struggled to get through the 2011 season healthy and, even on Thursday night, had more than a couple throws flutter out of his hands, his arm strength slowly deserting him.
But here he was in the fourth quarter Thursday, first marching Tennessee for a tying score and then picking on Harrison to set up the winning kick. Hasselbeck finished the day 25-for-44 for 290 yards -- so-so numbers that mask his late TD toss to Kenny Britt and the clutch third-down conversion to Cook.
Age, as they say, is just a number. And Hasselbeck's triumph over Harrison's team proved that it's all relative.
"I was just looking to get a free pair of shorts and a couple of autographs in Green Bay, Wisconsin," Hasselbeck told the NFL Network of being a sixth-round pick of the Packers in 1998. "To still be playing is a dream come true."
For the majority of the second half, this game seemed as if it would wind up playing into the "Steelers find a way" storyline. Pittsburgh came into Thursday night's contest banged up -- both Troy Polamalu (calf) and LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) were inactive and, at different points throughout the night, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Maurkice Pouncey, Ryan Clark, Ramon Foster, Will Allen and Marcus Gilbert all exited with injuries.
If you looked for Baron Batch, who scored the touchdown to put Pittsburgh ahead in the fourth quarter, on the team's running back depth chart, you'd find the special-teamer listed as "Other."
He found his way into the end zone when the Steelers needed him, however, part of the next-player-up approach that has served that franchise so well for so many years. When Foster briefly hobbled to the sideline in the third quarter, the Steelers faced the possibility of being short a lineman -- they dressed just seven and Foster was the third hurt. Instead, Foster gutted it out and the Steelers put themselves in position to win.
They would have, too, if not for the Titans' resolve.
After a Shaun Suisham field goal put Pittsburgh ahead, 23-16 with 8:18 left, Hasselbeck (with the help of Chris Johnson, who broke out with 114 total yards) led a much-needed answering drive.
He ended that drive by throwing two touchdown passes to Britt -- the first, the talented but oft-injured wide receiver dropped; the second, he bobbled but then secured.
"I went to tuck it and the ball went straight through my arms," Britt said of his drop. "I was nervous (about the bobble on the second pass). At the last second, (the defender) flashed his hand right in my face."
He managed to hold onto that second one, and after a Suisham miss from 54 yards out and Bironas' make, the Titans finally had their second win of the year.
"It wasn't about the Steelers. They're a good team, it was just about us," Hasselbeck said. "We were struggling ... we just needed to fix it. I think we played a little more free and focused in a little bit and it feels good to come away with a win."
If Tennessee's 2011 season had gone to plan, Hasselbeck would be glued to the bench, watching second-year QB Jake Locker call the shots. But with Locker suffering a shoulder injury in Week 1 and another in Week 4, the Titans have had to regroup and move forward.
They've done that by asking Hasselbeck to turn back the clock and deliver some offense for them. He was aided Thursday by Johnson's strong effort and a solid performance from Britt (four catches, 62 yards), who has been dealing with his own injury issues.
More than anything, though, the Titans needed Hasselbeck on Thursday night. With his career running on fumes, he came through -- while the wounded Steelers provided some more fuel for those who say they're too old and too worn down to get the job done.
"It's been," Hasselbeck said, "a year like no other for me."