By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — With all the talk about an improved offense by the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were as impotent as ever and almost lost more players to injury than they scored points in a 16-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
Only a four-yard scoring pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery with 1:23 remaining kept that dismal fact from holding true.
The Titans brought in coordinator Greg Williams to revamp their 27th-ranked defense from last season, and that group sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times and held them to eight rushing yards in the first half and 32 overall. It didn’t help the Steelers that center Maurkice Pouncey (right knee) was injured during the opening drive, and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (right knee) missed the fourth quarter. He played extensively because starter Isaac Redman fumbled twice.
Defensively, the Steelers played pretty well overall, but could not make enough big plays or get off the field on third down often enough. Also, Larry Foote (right bicep), cornerback Cortez Allen (right ankle) and safety Ryan Clark (unspecified) all had to leave the game at some point. Clark is the only one who returned after missing only a few plays here and there.
The Steelers couldn’t have had a better beginning to their game against the Titans, even though they lost the toss. The Titans received, and kick returner Darius Reynaud stepped out of the end zone and then backed into it after catching the ball. He took a knee, so the Steelers got two points for a safety and got the ball on a free kick. Things would get a lot worse in a few minutes.
The Steelers drove from their 41 to the Titans 21 and appeared to be ready to complete the long drive, but starting running back Isaac Redman was dropped for a two-yard loss and center Maurkice Pouncey was dropped by a careless move by David DeCastro. The Steelers second-year guard ducked his head and dove at the legs of Pouncey and a Titans defender. DeCastro’s helmet connected with Pouncey’s right knee, and the fourth-year center was carted off the field. He was taken to a local hospital to get an MRI, but the prognosis does not appear to be good.
The Steelers still had a chance for something good to come out of the drive. Roethlisberger went long on first down from the 41, and Emmanuel Sanders appeared to be open, although he didn’t get much separation. Still, the pass was in front of him, and he stretched out but let the ball go between his arms. After a two-yard run by Stephens-Howling, Roethlisberger connected with Cotchery for 11 yards and a first down.
Roethlisberger had the hot hand in the drive. On the ensuing third-down play with nine yards to go, he hit Antonio Brown for 20. Brown then ran for four, but he could have cut up earlier and gained more yards. The next play was when Pouncey got hurt, and it should be no surprise that the inept Redman was involved somehow. Kelvin Beachum, who had been used as a blocking tight end to that point, was forced to play center because new Steelers center-guard Cody Wallace was a healthy scratch.
Roethlisberger completed another third-down pass, eight yards to Cotchery, to give the Steelers a first down at the 15. Redman ran left for no gain, and Roethlisberger hit Sanders for nine to the 6. On third-and-one, Redman fumbled the ball into the end zone to kill the drive.
It must be noted that the Steelers defense didn’t allow much yardage during the first half, but the club continued to beat itself with various penalties, mental and physical mistakes. Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley had sacks, and Jarvis Jones made a big stop behind the line. He should get more time, because Jason Worilds had an illegal block on a punt return.
Roethlisberger got sacked twice late in the fourth quarter, and new punter Zoltan Mesko boomed a 51-yarder. The Steelers defense got the ball back, and Roethlisberger hit three first-down passes — 13 yards to Brown, 12 yards to Brown on a slant and 11 yards to tight end David Johnson — but Redman blew it again with a fumble backward for a six-yard loss. Stephens-Howling ran for five yards, and Roethlisberger passed to Sanders on third-and-11, but it was short.
The offensive issues continued for the Steelers midway through the second quarter, as Worilds illegal block negated a decent punt return. And on first down, Roethlisberger threw late to Sanders and was picked off by Alterraun Verner near midfield. The Titans proceeded to drive 49 yards for a touchdown in 12 plays and an amazing 6:48 to take a 7-2 lead with 44 seconds left.
A Troy Polamalu offsides penalty gave the Titans a jump start early in the drive, and on fourth-and-one Larry Foote missed a tackle on Jackie Battle in the backfield. Battle fought his way for the necessary one yard for the first down. Chris Johnson, who hadn’t done much to this point, carried three straight times for 14 yards and a first down at the 3. Battle jammed it into the end zone.
The offensive futility continued for the Steelers in the second half. On a third-and-two play during the initial drive in the third quarter, Stephens-Howling wasn’t ready for a quick, blitz-control pass that Roethlisberger put on his hands. A holding penalty by Shamarko Thomas forced the ensuing drive to start on the 9, and that didn’t improve as Roethlisberger was sacked for an eight-yard loss on third-and-three. Mesko punted from the end zone, and the Titans got the ball near midfield. Stephens-Howling injured his right knee, the same one he hurt in the preseason, and was out for the final quarter. He had been playing exclusively for Redman, who was benched, and for some reason Felix Jones.
The Steelers went 4-13 on third down in the loss.
Titans quarterback Jake Locker completed a 25-yard pass on third-and-15 to DeLanie Walker, who fumbled and recovered it. Lawrence Timmons had coverage on the tight end, and couldn’t stay with him. Locker also hit Nate Washington for 14 yards on third-and-13, as safety Ryan Clark was helped to the sideline. Thomas made a play in his place on third down to force a 26-yard field goal by Rob Bironas to give the Titans a 10-2 lead. Clark returned for the Steelers next defensive series.
Bironas also kicked field goals from 44 and 27 yards out to give the Titans a 16-2 advantage before the Steelers offensive finally reached the end zone.
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