PITTSBURGH — The Tennessee Titans began the season with an embarrassing step back. It merely set the stage for a significant leap forward.
Chris Johnson eschewed his usual flash for 70 clock-chewing yards, new defensive assistant Gregg Williams wasted little time working some of his old magic, and the Titans smothered the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-9 on Sunday.
Jackie Battle ran for a 3-yard touchdown in the second quarter and Rob Bironas kicked three field goals. Tennessee’s revamped defense did the rest.
“Yes, we were a little sloppy at spots, yes we wish we scored more points,” Tennessee coach Mike Munchak said. “And we’ll fix some of those things. But we did what we had to do to win the football game.”
Pittsburgh managed just 195 total yards and lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, likely out of the year with torn ligaments in his right knee. Linebacker Larry Foote is also done after rupturing his right biceps.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Nobody cares about our problems. They’re glad we’ve got them. We need to understand that. We need to stick together and persevere.”
Pouncey is the linchpin of a retooled offensive line; Foote is the wise sage for one of the NFL’s best linebacking groups.
“Anytime you lose guys that are key contributors to your game, it’s frustrating, but that’s the business we’re in,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. “Someone’s got to step up.”
The Steelers hadn’t lost a home opener in a decade and figured to have little trouble against the Titans, who gave up more points than any team in the NFL last season and brought in Williams as an assistant. A year removed from his role in the bounty scandal with the New Orleans Saints that to a league suspension, the former defensive coordinator’s impact was immediate.
While Munchak stressed coordinator Jerry Gray is in charge of the play calling, there’s little doubt Williams’ presence has keyed an attitude shift in a unit that took the brunt of the blame for a 6-10 season.
Aggressive from the opening snap, Tennessee forced two turnovers, limited the Steelers to 32 yards rushing and didn’t allow a touchdown until garbage time.
“We’re working much more together now,” defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said. “Nobody’s pointing fingers at anybody else and nobody’s being selfish. We have to work as a unit, and that’s what we did today.”
The Steelers came in with 10 straight victories in home openers, the longest streak in the league. They went winless in the preseason, but stressed they were fine.
Doesn’t look like it.
Following a bumpy offseason in which Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton departed, Pittsburgh insisted it was not rebuilding. Maybe, but the refurbishing project is going to take some time.
Running back Isaac Redman fumbled twice, including once deep in Tennessee territory. The defense limited big plays, but failed to generate a turnover or a momentum-swinging sack.
The Titans didn’t dominate. They didn’t have to. Content to work between the tackles with Johnson and Battle, Tennessee controlled the clock. The Titans held the ball for over 34 minutes and asked quarterback Jake Locker to do little more than avoid mistakes.
Locker completed 11 of 20 passes for 125 yards, but led Tennessee on a lengthy scoring drive early in the fourth quarter that gave the Titans a 13-2 lead and sent most of the crowd streaming toward the exit.
The Titans needed 42 carries to run for 112 yards, but what their runs lacked in pop they made up for in persistence.
“I think coming in we were going to run it, we felt we had to,” Munchak said. “We had to get a lot of touches. It’s like a boxing match. It’s a lot of (little) runs, but we felt we were wearing them out by doing that.”
The subdued ending hardly seemed possible after one of the more memorable opening weekend flubs by Tennessee kick returner Darius Reynaud.
Shaun Suisham’s squib kick was fielded at the Tennessee 1. Reynaud shuffled into the end zone and dropped to a knee. Officials originally called the play a touchback, but referee Jerome Boger signaled a safety after ruling the ball never actually crossed the goal line.
“I know I was in the end zone,” Reynaud said. “I did not know where the ball was. That’s something I need to work on.”
Pittsburgh’s euphoria lasted all of eight plays. The Steelers were driving following the free kick when guard David DeCastro fell on Pouncey’s right knee. Pouncey laid on the ground for several minutes before being taken off on a golf cart.
Kelvin Beachum stepped in for Pouncey, but the drive ended when Redman — the de facto starter with rookie Le’Veon Bell sidelined by a sprained right foot — fumbled into the end zone.
The unusual 2-0 lead held up for until safety Alterraun Verner intercepted Ben Roethlisberger at the Pittsburgh 49 and the Titans reeled off a 12-play drive. Battle finished it by plowing 3 yards with 46 seconds left in the half.