Ok, whew. 1-0. As Mike Tomlin said last year, people get too preoccupied with style points. Tonight's 13-10 victory by the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Tennessee Titans left plenty to be desired if you were looking for perfection, but at the end of the day, just about everything imperative that we needed to see did in fact unfold. To my notes from the game.
* Hmm, where to start? Well, I guess as good a place as any is to state that the 2009 Steelers really aren't going to be much different than the 2008 Steelers. By that I mean we can all forget about some sort of revamped running game against the league's better rush defenses. The Steelers proved again tonight that picking up tough yardage in the running game against a stout defense is going to be tough this coming season. The Steelers finished with just 36 yards on 23 carries and were a mediocre 4/14 on 3rd down partly because of their inability to again move the chains on 3rd and short situations with the ground game.
* If the running game was a disappointment, Big Ben's performance had to be considered an outstanding development. The 2-time Super Bowl winning quarterback completed 12 straight passes at one point late in the game and finished with 363 yards passing on 33 of 43 attempts. He was picked off twice but one of those came at the end of the half on a Hail Mary. His other interception was an early season miscalculation, but all in all I thought Roethlisberger looked exquisitely sharp and more ready than ever to lead his team to great things. Bottom line is this team has a top 3 quarterback in this league and that's going to take you pretty far. Couple that with an elite defense and look out...
* Would this be the year that Santonio Holmes broke through and emerged as a true star at the wide receiver position? And if he did - and actually, if he didn't as well - would he handle the situation with the class of a Steelers player and continue to work within the team framework? For a night, Holmes proved he was both ready to establish himself as a Pro Bowl caliber play maker as well as to wait his turn and wait for the game to come to him patiently. Holmes finished with 9 catches for 131 yards and 1 touchdown.
* Obviously his fumble at the end of regulation was a huge mistake, but I was also pleased to see Hines Ward play good football tonight against a pretty solid Titans secondary. Ward also finished with 100+ yards. He caught 8 balls for 103 and again proved that he's capable of getting the offense going with one of his patented big plays. His 29 yard catch and run near the end of the first half led to the game's first score just several plays later.
* Changing gears here...is Tennesee the Ohio State of the NFL? Jeff Fisher is a pretty good football coach, don't get me wrong. He's never really going to 'lose' a football team like you'll see a Romeo Crennel or an Eric Mangini do. But I don't know if I'd ever truly like my chances under Jeff Fisher with just a solid quarterback like Kerry Collins (as compared to a very, very good one like Steve McNair in his prime).
* Justin Gage more or less had his way with William Gay I felt. Gage finished with 7 catches for 78 yards and 1 touchdown. Not sure just how many of those catches came against Gay, but it felt like a fair number of them were against him. There was also at least one big gain from Gage against Gay that was negated by penalty. Gay, to his credit, also made some nice plays against the Titans, but as I've been since the minute we let Bryant McFadden walk, I'm still concerned about Gay playing a full season in a huge role opposite Ike Taylor. Particularly if...
* Troy Polamlu is seriously injured. Polamalu was absolutely dominating the game before his left knee was tweaked on a blocked FG attempt that he tried to pick up and run. 280 pound Alge Crumpler landed on his knee, extending it awkwardly. These notes are being written just a bit after the conclusion of the game, so no news yet has surfaced about the severity of Polamalu's injury. Expect the worse though. It looked ugly on television. Fingers crossed.
If Polamalu is lost for a significant amount of time, all bets are off really with this defense. I think it could still be good. Very good, in fact. But the bottom line is the offense will have to be significantly more consistent and be better controlling the clock if Polamalu were not back there on defense being a game-changer. Let's just wait and see for now.
* Staying on the defensive side of the ball, a quick kudos to Keyaron Fox for his nice game filling in for Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. Fox finished with 5 tackles and really did a noticeably good job against both the pass and the run. The Steelers will benefit from Timmons's return, particularly if Polamalu is lost for a number of games, but it's really, really good to know that the Steelers seem to have a player in Fox who's just about as solid and complete a player as Larry Foote was for the past several years in Pittsburgh.
* In my brief preview to the game, I wondered who would fill the void left by Anthony Madison being cut. Well, for a night it was two mainstay veterans of special teams - Andre Frazier and Arnold Harrison. Both were outstanding headhunters on special teams against the Titans. Well done.
More from me in a bit.