PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from the taut Titans-Steelers NFL Kickoff opener Thursday night at the Big Ketchup Bottle ...
• The defending Super Bowl champion Steelers somehow survived Thursday night at Heinz Field, but there were red flags and trouble spots in any number of directions if you cared to look for them.
Pittsburgh's once-feared running game seems to be a thing of the past. The Steelers offensive line looked sieve-like once again, allowing four sacks and a ton of pressure from Tennessee. And then there's the scary proposition of playing without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu for a while. His left knee MCL sprain, suffered late in the first half after he had put on a play-making clinic against the Titans, is being estimated as a three-to-six week injury at this early juncture. Without question that's a blow for last year's top-ranked defense.
That's the bad news that came out of Pittsburgh's gutty 13-10 overtime win (RECAP | BOX) against Tennessee. But the good news is very good: The Steelers still have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
No. 7 might have his off-field issues at the moment, but on the field he was once again solid gold when it mattered most. When things break down out there, Roethlisberger is the best in the NFL at making something out of nothing. He did it over and over again to the Titans in crunch-time situations, and it was by far the biggest reason the Steelers will enter Week 2 at 1-0, with Tennessee headed home at 0-1.
"He was Ben,'' Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said. "When rubber meets the road, he is at his best. In those moments, he sees (the field) with great clarity. He provided quality plays for us time and time again.''
I'm still not even sure how Roethlisberger managed to finish 33-of-43 for 363 yards passing against Tennessee. The Titans seemed to be his face for most of the night, and when they weren't sacking him, they were hitting him and hurrying him. He threw a couple picks -- one of them of the Hail Mary variety at the end of the first half -- and made a couple of bad throws.
But he was extraordinary when the Steelers went to their two-minute offense on four different occasions between regulation and overtime. And if anybody still doubted it after watching the Steelers beat Arizona to win their sixth Super Bowl last February, this is now utterly and entirely Roethlisberger's team.
He's the straw that stirs this drink. Not the defense, as good as it is. Not the running game. Not Hines Ward. And not the ever-improving Santonio Holmes. It's Big Ben, his big, punishment-absorbing frame, and his big right arm that refuses to let any play die.
At this point, at the start of his sixth NFL season, we hold that particular truth to be among the league's most self-evident.
• When you first saw it, you thought maybe it was that first negative domino that seems to befall most every Super Bowl champion, ruining the party and spoiling the title defense almost before it has even begun. But the Steelers for the most part didn't flinch when Polamalu left the game late in the first half, and no one seemed overly concerned about the safety in the post-game.
An MCL sprain is far better than an ACL tear, and there seemed to be a hopeful air that we've seen far from the last of No. 43 this season. Veteran safety Tyrone Carter replaced Polamalu and fared reasonably well.
"He's Troy, and there are certain plays he makes that no one else can make,'' said the Steelers other starting safety, Ryan Clark. "At halftime, we come into the locker room and (defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau said, 'Turn around. There's Troy. He's in civilian clothes and he's not coming back today. So we've got to pick it up and keep moving.'
"I don't really know how bad it is, because I haven't talked to anyone yet. But if anybody can pray his way out of it, it's T.P.''
• Before Polamalu left the game -- after Titans tight end Alge Crumpler fell on his left knee while both men we trying to recover the ball on a blocked 31-yard Rob Bironas field goal attempt -- have you ever seen one player involved in so many of the first half's key plays, both good and bad?
There was Polamalu's kamikaze-like hit of Titans running back Chris Johnson for a 2-yard loss on 3rd and 6 from the Tennessee 4. There was his spectacular one-handed interception of a floated Kerry Collins pass at the Pittsburgh 5. There was his personal foul for a late hit out of bounds on Johnson at the end of the Titans' 32-yard first-quarter run. And there was his 15-yard face mask penalty, called when he grabbed the grill of Tennessee tight end Bo Scaife after an 8-yard completion. Polamalu also registered two passes defensed in his 27-minute-plus stint of action.
All in all, it was one of the more remarkable bursts of safety play I've ever witnessed, and for a while there it seemed as if Polamalu was front and center in every one of the game's defining moments. If that was the last we get to see of him in 2009, what a shame it would be for football fans everywhere.
• It was truly shocking to see Hines Ward cough up that fumble at the Titans 4 with 51 seconds left in regulation, because that's just so uncharacteristic of the Steelers' veteran receiver.
"That's almost as rare as Jerome (Bettis) fumbling against the Colts (in the 2005 playoffs),'' Roethlisberger said. "It just doesn't happen. When he caught (the 30-yard pass), I thought, 'Okay, we'll kick the field goal, game over.' When he started running, I thought, 'He's going to score, because Hines doesn't ever get stopped inside the 5-yard line.' I saw the ball come out and I was almost in disbelief.''
Us too, Ben. Us too.
• One thought kept cycling through my mind watching the Titans defense in this one: Who needs Albert Haynesworth? Tennessee's defensive front got steady pressure on Roethlisberger, even without Haynesworth at defensive tackle, or without resorting to a bunch of blitzes. The Titans dropped Roethlisberger those four times for minus-42 yards, with five different linemen totaling at least a half sack: Jason Jones, Tony Brown, and Jevon Kearse all had one sack, while Jacob Ford and William Hayes split a sack.
And the Titans run defense lost nothing of its dominating ways without Big Albert in the lineup. Pittsburgh's running game was anemic, finishing with just 36 yards on 23 attempts (1.6 average), with Willie Parker's 19 yards on 13 carries leading the way. Only one of the Steelers' 19 first downs came on the ground, an astounding number for a team that used to live and die with its rushing game.
I said it a couple times this preseason, but I believe Tennessee is going to do just fine with its rotation of players in Haynesworth's old tackle slot. If the Titans don't get where they want to go this year, it won't be because they let Haynesworth get away in free agency.
• Let's be honest: Tennessee had no business losing this game, and it can thank its special teams for helping ensure the defeat. The Titans had a Bironas 37-yard field goal attempt punched wide right in the first quarter, in part due to a poor snap that stayed low and to the right of holder Craig Hentrich. They had the 31-yard attempt blocked by Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith in the second quarter.
Hentrich shanked what could have been a hugely costly punt late in regulation, and punt returner Cortland Finnegan, a starting cornerback, showed really shaky judgment all night long. He needs to learn how to call a fair catch, or let the ball go. He caught one punt inside his own 10 and promptly muffed it (luckily making the recovery), and he later caught a punt at the Titans 10 and got leveled after thinking he had signaled for the fair catch.
• Surely the score of the game rang a few bells for Titans fans. The 13-10 loss was the same outcome Tennessee suffered at home against Baltimore in the divisional playoffs last January. Just like in that painful denouement, the Titans fairly well dominated play for the most of the game, but squandered their scoring chances and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
* The Titans well-respected running game was no model of efficiency against the Steelers either. Tennessee finished with 86 yards on 25 carries, a 3.4 average. But at halftime, this stat spoke volumes: Chris Johnson had seven carries for 31 yards, with a long gain of 32.
Johnson finished with 57 yards on 15 carries, but Tennessee produced a mere two first downs on the ground, doubling Pittsburgh's outcome.
• Did you notice how Santonio Holmes has quickly become the guy Roethlisberger looks for in a clutch situation now, not exclusively Ward, as it once was? Holmes caught a game-high nine passes for 131 yards, with his 34-yard touchdown catch late in the first half providing Pittsburgh's first points. Ward had eight grabs for 103 yards, but it seemed to me that Big Ben looked for Holmes first most of the time.
"Santonio, you can't say enough about the way the guy plays,'' said Roethlisberger, of his team's Super Bowl hero. "He finds holes and gets open. He makes plays. I missed him a couple times.''
• The Steelers somehow got away with their offensive line being a weak link again last season, but you have to think they're tempting fate. Roethlisberger has been sacked a league-high 139 times in the past three seasons, and with four sacks Thursday, he's off to another painful start in that department. Tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon got beat by the Titans, but right guard Trai Essex didn't distinguish himself either.
• Pittsburgh wasn't the only team to lose one of its stars on the night. Titans starting tight end Bo Scaife was lost early in the third quarter with a sprained left knee. He was hit by Steelers defensive end James Harrison after a 1-yard reception, losing a fumble on the play. That's no small loss for Tennessee. Scaife was the Titans leading receiver last season with 58 catches.
The Titans do have impressive rookie tight end Jared Cook, but he was inactive Thursday with a lingering ankle sprain. Crumpler and Craig Stevens replaced Scaife, who could be looking at missing at least a game or two.
• Until he put Scaife out of the game and forced that fumble, Harrison, the NFL's defensive player of the year last season, was having a very quiet night. He finished with four tackles, one tackle for loss, the forced fumble and a quarterback hit. Someone will likely pay for those modest totals in some upcoming game.
• Just wondering, but Steelers rookie receiver Mike Wallace, does he have it in his contract that he has to play 60 Minutes? Tick, tick, tick....
• The Super Bowl champion getting the honor of opening the new season at home in a Thursday night game, now in its sixth year, certainly sounds like a good idea at first blush. But with everyone always on the lookout for any potential NFL situation that might be an issue of competitive fairness -- see Cowboys, video boards -- how come no one seems to mind that the Thursday night kickoff opener has become a major advantage for the home team? I mean, is it fair to give such a leg up to the defending Super Bowl champ?
In the six years in which the champs have hosted the first game of the NFL season on Thursday night, they're now 6-0 with an average margin of victory of more than 11 points per game. Before Thursday, there had been only been one matchup that finished with a winning margin of one score or less, and that was New England's 27-24 defeat of the visiting Colts in 2004, the first year the current format. New England has also won by 10 points (over Oakland in 2005), with Pittsburgh winning by 11 in 2006, Indy winning by 31 in 2007, and the Giants winning by nine last year.