I began this series of posts with a discussion of the Atlanta game in Week 1. The premise of the series is that as the season unfolded, we saw what almost seemed like two teams, and we were never entirely sure which one was going to show up to any game, or even at any given moment in a game. I am going back through each game and looking for a play or a drive that illustrates both Steelers teams.
Game 2 - @ Tennessee Titans Final Score: 19-11 Steelers
General game overview: I feel like a broken record, but this was definitely another awesome defensive battle. The Steelers defense held the Titans to a FG and a TD. The touchdown came when there were less than 2 minutes left in the game, and was the first touchdown that the defense had given up for the season. The Titans defense was also playing hardball, and held the Steelers to field goals - a whole lot of field goals, except for the initial kick return for a TD.
In Week 1 the defense limited Michael Turner to 42 rushing yards. They didn't skip a beat in Week 2 as they limited Chris Johnson to 34 yards on 16 attempts. Johnson was hoping to keep alive his streak of 12 continuous 100+ yard games, which made him 2nd all-time, behind Barry Sanders (14.) Sorry about that. The total rushing yards for the Titans at the end of the game - 45.
This was a game of multiple QBs. Vince Young started for the Titans, and was benched after he gave up 3 turnovers (2 interceptions and a forced fumble.) At that point in the game there were 5 turnovers for TEN, as the kick returner fumbled his first catch, about 20 seconds into the game, and Timmons forced a Chris Johnson fumble. Kerry Collins came in at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and promptly threw a beautiful pass right to BMac, thus killing a nice drive and giving us turnover #6. This spirit of generosity on the part of the Titans offense wasn't quite exhausted, as Collins was stripped/sacked with less than 7 minutes left in the game.
Dennis Dixon was the starting quarterback in the game, with Charlie Batch as the #2. Byron Leftwich was cut for the week so that the Steelers could bring in an extra D lineman, and they signed Steve McClendon. Dixon started the game trying to stay in the pocket, but quickly came to the conclusion that he would be killed there, as the pass protection being provided by the O line was spotty at best. (I'm not giving you the lineup, because honestly it changed almost from play to play because of dehydration.) In the longest drive of the day, the Steelers started on their own 20 yard line and made it all the way to the TEN 25. Dixon rolled out for a designed run and made it to the 18 yard line, but was 7 yards short of the first down. He apparently sprained his knee at some point in that drive. Jeff Reed kicked yet another field goal, and next time the Pittsburgh offense was on the field, Charlie Batch was at center and Atwaan Randle El was warming up on the sideline. Scary stuff. When asked after the game about the QB situation, Tomlin said " I don’t know who is going to play quarterback next week. I know it won’t be me. I’m not good enough."
(Other) Injuries: Casey Hampton and Max Starks were out. Bryant McFadden apparently received the infamous groin injury during the first game, and I'll be watching as we look at the rest of the season to see whether he ever again played as well as he did in the opening game. If he was dealing with a nagging set of related injuries all season, it would explain why he didn't turn out to be the player we thought we were getting. Sanders and Worilds were both listed as doubtful, (quad and shoulder, respectively) and neither played.
During the game, lots of players left the field with minor injuries and/or dehydration, but the injuries that held over into the practice week besides Hampton and Starks were Dixon (who was IRed with a knee injury,) Trai Essex, (ankle,) Chris Kemoeatu (knee,) and Hines Ward (calf.)
Game 1 Notables:
• The temperature at kickoff was the hottest ever recorded for a game at LP Field - 87 degrees. (The heat index went to over 100 degrees during the game.) The Titans elected to wear their road whites, forcing the Steelers to wear their black uniforms, just to make matters worse.
• Between injuries and dehydration, the line players were being constantly rotated in and out, leading Tomlin to say after the game "...it was musical chairs. Man, I don’t know who we had in there for a spell there."
• The Steelers had won 13 of the previous 16 games vs. the Titans. One of the three losses, the loss in December of 2008, inspired then-Titans RB Lendale White to stomp on a Terrible Towel. He probably still regrets that.
• The Titans had not lost that many turnovers (7) in a game in ten years.
• Titans RB Chris Johnson averaged 145.6 yards in his previous seven home games.
• Johnson has never gotten to the 100 yard mark when playing the Steelers.
• Troy Polamalu had a spectacular game, perhaps in response to the birth of his second son earlier that week.
• Heartening plays: a great pulling block by Kemo that set up a Mendenhall 20 yard run, and a great tackle by Antonio Brown during the first kickoff to TEN in the 4th quarter.
• Brett Keisel got a sack/forced fumble for his birthday. Hopefully they had cake in the locker room.
• I loved seeing Redman fight off about a billion tackles in the backfield to get 3 yards on a run on 1st and 15
• Battered and bruised as they were, the Steelers won the time of possession battle, (33:40), the turnover battle, (7-1), and the game.
• My favorite quote of the week, from ILB James Farrior: "We knew everybody was going to count us out, having Ben out... Mike Tomlin been pissed off the last couple weeks, so he has been taking it out on us and we have been taking it out on other teams."
• My second-favorite quote of the week, from the ever-quotable Mike Tomlin: When asked if that was as nasty and physical a football game as he had ever seen, he replied "Probably until next week. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it."
Unsung Heros of the Game: The guys holding up the sunshades so that the players on the sideline didn't have to sit in the sun...
Team Jeckyll Play of the Week: Well, there have to be two. The first is the Mewelde Moore handoff to Antonio Brown on the opening kick return that Brown took to the house, in his very first time of touching the ball in an NFL regular season game. Brown also had a 21-yard return later in the game.
Michael B. here with a few thoughts on what happened on the 'Team Jeckyll ' play of the week.
Fantastic play design by special teams coach Al Everest. The play is set up just perfectly at this point with multiple Titans players either out of position or on their way to being out of position.
On his first ever NFL touch, Brown has green grass and blockers out in front of him.
One man to beat....
Yes sir. Home free...
Floor's all yours again Mrs. Rollett.
The other is a YouTube sensation - Troy Polamalu's flying tackle over the Titans offensive line to break up the QB sneak by Collins on the PIT 1 yard line. It only delayed the inevitable, as Collins managed to throw it to former Steeler Nate Washington in the end zone two plays later, but it was about the coolest thing I've ever seen.
This was the second Ben-less game, and once again the Steelers relied on their rushing for such offense as they managed to generate. They made 33 attempts, including those by both QBs, for 106 yards. Dennis Dixon had the long run of the day. The passing game was phenomenally unsuccessful, gaining 21 net yards on 17 attempts. I'm too depressed by those statistics to even look up their QB ratings. Dixon gained 21 yards by himself on the afore-mentioned long run of the day. That said, Charlie Batch came in after being relegated to #4 QB and having very little playing or practice time and managed not to lose the game. That is a lot to be thankful for, right there.
The Good from Game 2:
• Special Teams coverage was generally good, including the Stevenson Sylvester forced fumble on the first TEN reception that was recovered by Keyaron Fox.
• Jeff Reed's leg produced most of the points in this game - 13 of them, to be precise. He had no misses in the game,
• Although there were four Steelers fumbles, two of them were recovered by PIT because of heads-up plays by Wallace (who flew from the side to pick up a fumbled Dixon snap) and Moore (who grabbed a fumbled Batch snap.) The third was negated by an off-sides penalty, the fourth was a sack/strip recovered by TEN.
• Since the TEN offense was in such a giving mood, the Steelers D was inspired to share the glory, and turnovers were generated/recovered by a cast of thousands:
Team Hyde Play of the Week: If you were to just list the offensive plays, close your eyes, and stick your finger on one of them, you might well have a Team Hyde play. The Titans really exposed the weakness of the O line, although to be fair guessing who the line was at any one time would be a crap shoot. The Titans managed 192 net passing yards on 35 attempts, which would be a lot more impressive if they had generated more than a mere 3 points for about 96% of the game.
But the task I've set for myself is to pick a play, so I pick the pass attempt on 3rd and 6 during the Steelers opening drive. They lined up in the empty backfield configuration, a look that fills the heart of the BTSC faithful with fear, and sure enough, Jonathan Scott was beaten for a sack/strip by Witherspoon and the Titans got the ball. Somebody on BTSC did an analysis of the results of empty backfield sets a few months ago, and the 5 wide receiver empty backfield set turned out to have a surprisingly good success rate. This was, however, 3 receivers- Ward, Wallace, and Randle El, + Heath, with Memo in the slot. Whatever you want to call it, it didn't work out too well...
Michael B. back with a few thoughts on what happened on the 'Team Hyde' play of the week.
In the first frame, I highlight Titans' LB Will Witherspoon and Steelers LT Jonathan Scott. It's a bit hard to tell, but Witherspoon has his body turned to and his eyes focused on Mewelde Moore. In other words, he's pretending like he's about to drop in coverage. You can see that Scott has his head and eyes shifted out towards Witherspoon. Scott knows he's got to account for the outmost guy because of the lack of protection help in the backfield. But he gets duped by Witherspoon's bluff.
Credit Witherspoon though. After the ball is snapped, you can see that he's still acting as if he's going to drop into coverage, not blitz. His teammates are already attacking, but he's discipliend enough to hold his ground for just a split second before taking off towards the QB.
This is just a different angle. Again, you can see Witherspoon has his body turned towards Moore, not angled towards the backfield like he may be on a delayed blitz. Scott now commits to sliding down inside.
With Scott now engaged, Witherspoon is free to take off towards the unprotected Dixon.
I highlight the game clock just to emphasize how amazingly fast NFL athletes are. Just one split second after baiting Scott into thinking he was dropping into coverage, Witherspoon has a free run at Dixon thanks to an impressively explosive first step.
Back to momma R.
The Bad and the Ugly from Game 2:
• The TEN punt returner that everybody missed except Daniel Sepulveda. Have I mentioned how much I love Sepulveda? That took the ball to our 40 yard line.
• The Steelers were 0 for 4 in the red zone, which can't really be viewed as an improvement of the previous week's 0/2. TEN was 1/3.
• Seven turnovers by the defense only resulted in 12 points by the offense. Which is admittedly 12 points better than none.
• There were four Steeler fumbles and one interception in the game.
• The pass to Nate Washington in the end zone with about 20 seconds left in the game. BMac was a day late and a dollar short, and fortunately Ryan Clark saved his bacon by breaking it up. In theory, with a 2-point conversion, that could have sent the game into overtime.
• Redman's epic 3-yard run on 1st and 15 was on 1st and 15 because of a Kemo false start. (Overall, there were 5 penalties for 35 yards, which compares favorably with the Titans, who had 11 penalties for 72 yards...)
Good or Bad in this game, according to taste:
• The triple-threat sack of Vince Young by Woodley and Keisel that culminated with Harrison body-slamming Young to the ground. (Loved the hustle, but not the bustle...)
• The scrum that occurred about 23 seconds into the game after an incomplete pass to Hines Ward, in which Tony Brown and Chris Kemoeatu received off-setting personal foul penalties.
• There were two TDs negated by penalties - an endzone pass by Charlie Batch pass to Mike Wallace that was brought back by a holding penalty on J. Scott, and a Chris Johnson 85 yard run for a TD that was negated by a holding penalty on their center, E. Amano.
We don't even have to ask ourselves whether to credit the offense or the defense for this win. The way I see it, the defense won it in conjunction with Special Teams. Now there's a sentence that no one could imagine writing during the 2009 season... The Titans were expected to be a really good team at the beginning of the season, but by the end of the season they had a 6-10 record. On the other hand, the game wasn't even close until the last 2 minutes.
At the end of this game, the Steelers already had more wins than many commentators were predicting for the first four games, giving them some breathing room going into Week 3.