Steelers lean on QB's passes to beat Titans in season opener

Friday, September 11, 2009
Steelers' Troy Polamalu returns an interception past Titans receiver Kenny Britt during the first quarter Thursday in Pittsburgh. (KEITH B. SRAKOCIC ~ Associated Press)

PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Reed kicked a 33-yard field goal with 4:32 gone in overtime and the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers again relied on Ben Roethlisberger's ability to lead clutch scoring drives to beat the Tennessee Titans 13-10 in the NFL season opener Thursday night.

The Steelers, their running game stuffed by Tennessee's defense, didn't get going until Roethlisberger began repeatedly finding Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward open downfield. Roethlisberger went 33 of 43 for 363 yards, with Holmes -- the Super Bowl star -- making nine catches for 131 yards and Ward, despite a potentially costly fumble, making eight for 103.

The Titans lost the coin toss to start the overtime and, as so often happens, never saw the ball again. Roethlisberger, who also led a touchdown drive at the end of the first half, hit Ward for 11, Holmes for 11 and rookie Mike Wallace for 22. Unwilling to risk a turnover, the Steelers kicked the field goal on first down to win it.

Pittsburgh looked ready to win it late in regulation when Roethlisberger, so adept at running the two-minute offense, took advantage of good field position created by a shanked Craig Hentrich punt to find Ward on a 30-yard completion to the Titans 4. But as Ward was trying to muscle his way closer to the goal line, Michael Griffin stripped the ball and Stephen Tulloch recovered with less than a minute remaining.

Even with no running game to support him -- the Steelers were outrushed 86-36 as Willie Parker was held to 19 yards on 13 carries -- Roethlisberger had one of the biggest games of his career. Tennessee's Kerry Collins, usually the caretaker of a run-first offense, was 22 of 35 for 244 yards after having only four games of 200 yards or more last season.

The Titans were the last team to beat the Steelers, winning 31-17 on Dec. 21 to gain home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but they never won again and the Steelers never lost again.

Still, Steelers' fans remembered how LenDale White, Keith Bulluck and several Titans players stomped all over Terrible Towels at the end of the game, and it created a buzz of anticipation for a rematch that appeared likely to occur in January but didn't.

Instead, this game appeared to be a throwback not to last season, but to the 1970s, when the Titans' predecessors, the Oilers, twice met and lost to the Steelers and their famed Steel Curtain defense in the AFC championship game. All that was missing were some Jack Lambert hits on Earl Campbell.

The Titans spent the first quarter tromping on a Steelers offense that managed all of 1 yard. Then, after Bironas' 31-yarder was blocked by Aaron Smith -- he missed earlier from the 27 following a bad snap -- both teams suddenly found their offenses.

Roethlisberger, again a master of the two-minute drive, needed only five plays to lead a 79-yard drive in which he found familiar target Ward for 29 yards ahead of his 34-yard touchdown throw to Holmes.

Yes, those two again.

After finally gaining some of the momentum that Tennessee held most of the half, the Steelers gave it right back.

With the Steelers defense missing both safety Troy Polamalu (knee), who had earlier made a remarkable, one-handed interception, linebacker LaMarr Woodley (leg cramps), the Titans needed only three plays to tie it. Collins found Britt with no defender within 10 yards on him for a 57-yard completion to the 14. Collins then hit an equally wide open Justin Gage in the end zone with 48 seconds left in the half.

Polamalu hurt his left knee when a Titans player fell on him while he was trying to pick up the blocked field goal. He did not immediately leave the field for treatment, as usually occurs when a player has a serious injury, but did not play again.

Titans Pro Bowl cornerback Cortland Finnegan ended the half with an 80-yard interception return to the Steelers' 20. Roethlisberger threw two interceptions in the half after throwing none -- and eight touchdowns -- while winning his first three season openers.

There were the usual trappings of an NFL season opener. A free concert by Tim McGraw and the Black Eyed Peas attracted tens of thousands of fans at a nearby riverfront park, scores of boats put down anchor on the three rivers near Heinz Field.

The U.S. ambassador to Ireland also flew in for the occasion. (OK, so it was Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who can't make most games this season but wasn't about to miss this one.)

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