NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Entering Thursday night’s game with Pittsburgh, the Tennessee Titans were a team in disarray, teed up for a blow that could have shattered them into some kind of organizational shake-up.
At least, that’s what many of the wary hometown fans might have feared as boisterous Steelers fans in large numbers waved their terrible towels at LP Field prior to kickoff.
Instead, led by nominal backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who had struggled mightily in his previous two games, the Titans delivered the surprise with a 26-23 victory over a depleted opponent that sent the Steelers going in the wrong direction.
Rob Bironas’ fourth field goal of the game, a 40-yarder as time expired, provided the winning margin.
The 37-year-old Hasselbeck, once good enough to guide a Seattle team to a Super Bowl, entered the game with a 73.6 rating, 28th among NFL quarterbacks. Having lost out to Jake Locker in training camp for the starting job, Hasselbeck was playing his third straight game because of a left shoulder injury Locker suffered against Houston on Sept. 30. In that game, Hasselbeck threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
The Titans entered Thursday having lost four of their first five games and by having allowed a league-worst 181 points, putting them on a pace to surrender the most points in league history — by far. Pittsburgh, a playoff team a year ago, fell to 2-3, including 0-3 on the road, and suffered a slew of injuries.
“We really felt like we needed this win, not only for morale. … Obviously, our record’s not what we anticipated it would be,” said Hasselbeck, who completed 25 of 44 passes for 290 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“So it feels good to win against a good opponent, feels good to win a close game, feels good to make mistakes and still put them behind you and focus on the future.”
But against the vaunted Steelers’ defense — albeit one that played without without safety Troy Polamalu (calf) and linebacker Lamar Woodley (hamstring) — Hasselbeck summoned some of his old mojo.
With the Titans’ trailing 23-16 with 8:18 left in regulation, Hasselbeck drove the Titans 80 yards on 11 plays over 3:59. He finished the drive on third-and-5 by drilling a pass into the chest of wide receiver Kenny Britt. The ball bounced in the air but settled into Britt’s grip for the tying score with 4:19 left.
After Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham missed a 54-yard field goal with 48 seconds left, the Titans took over at their 45 and on three plays, including a 5-yard pass to Chris Johnson and a 25-yarder to tight end Jared Cook, Hasselbeck put them in position for the win.
Bironas’s 40-yarder finished the job.
The Titans went 9-7 last season in head coach Mike Munchak’s first season, missing the playoffs by a single game. All of that made their start to 2012 somewhat puzzling.
“We know we have the talent, we just haven’t been playing as well as we would have liked to,” Munchak said. “I think the big thing is, we stepped up when we had to. We need this win badly. We needed to play much better than we had been and we did that tonight.”
The win put the season in a different perspective for the Titans — they are 2-1 at home, with their only loss coming to New England. So there’s hope the season can turn around.
For Pittsburgh, the picture turned a bit more bleak.
On the opening play from scrimmage, the Steelers lost center Maurkice Pouncey (MCL) who did not return. Later in the first half, they lost right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The Titans began to hold their own on the battle for the line of scrimmage, registering one sack and five tackles for loss in their best defensive performance of the season.
Pittsburgh also played much of the second half without first- and second-string running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle), who had four catches for 105 yards. Ryan Clark (hip pointer) missed some plays, causing the Steelers to play at times two back-up safeties.
Asked if the injuries affected the outcome, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin offered only a terse, “no.”
So on a night when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 363 yards to pass Terry Bradshaw and become the organization’s all-time leader in passing yards with 28,066, the Steelers had nothing to celebrate.
Some might say that the Steelers are a different team without the 31-year-old Polamalu, a five-time All-Pro who missed his third game out of the last four.
“We can’t sit there and cry because we don’t have Troy out there,” Clark said. “We have to go out there and make plays. If you can field a team, you can win a football game. We’re fielding a team and we’re just losing.”
Fielding a team and losing — something the Steelers aren’t used to.