The Pittsburgh Steelers apparently are going to stay with this Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes combination until somebody beats them.
Jeff Reed kicked a 33-yard field goal with 4:32 gone in overtime and the Super Bowl champion Steelers again relied on 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 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 a touchdown and Ward, despite a potentially costly fumble, making eight for 103.
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Holmes’ statistics were exactly the same as the Super Bowl, when he caught the winning 6-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger in the final minute to beat Arizona 27-23.
Thursday’s victory might be costly, however – star safety Troy Polamalu, the best player on the field during the first half, sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on a blocked field goal. Coach Mike Tomlin said the injury usually sidelines a player 3 to 6 weeks.
“It is speculation at this point (how long he will be out),” Tomlin said.
The Titans lost the coin toss to start the overtime and, as so often happens, never saw the ball again. Roethlisberger, who led a touchdown drive at the end of the first half, hit Ward for 11 yards, 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.
“It’s nice to know we can win close games,” Reed said. “This is my eighth year here and I’ve been in a lot of close games, and we usually are on the up side of those.”
While the Steelers ended up winning on two Reed field goals, the Titans may have lost because Rod Bironas twice couldn’t convert from inside the 40.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t beat the Tennessee Titans, the Tennessee Titans beat the Tennessee Titans,” said wide receiver Nate Washington, the former Steelers player.
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 the third-most productive passing game 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 never led until Bironas connected from 45 yards with 11:03 remaining, making it 10-7, after Collins kept the drive moving with 15-yard completions to rookie Kenny Britt and Justin Gage.
“We had chances and opportunities but missed a field goal, had a field goal blocked,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “I believe we’ve got a good football team in that locker room and we’re going to bounce back.”
The Steelers tied it on Reed’s 32-yarder with 2:57 to go, but only after Mewelde Moore was held to 1 yard on two plays. Reed, under pressure, barely got off a low line drive that squeezed through the uprights.
Roethlisberger was 7 of 7 for 57 yards on the drive but the Steelers‘ game-long lack of a running game again caused a drive to stall after they had a second-and-2 at the 10.
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 wasn’t a throwback 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.
“It was a 15-round, old-school Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight that went the distance,” Bulluck said.
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.
“I got my hand up,” Smith said. “I jumped and my vertical is probably not that good, but …”
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.
With the Steelers defense missing both Polamalu, who had earlier made a remarkable, one-handed interception, and 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. Britt, the first-round pick, made four catches for 85 yards.
NOTES: The Steelers have won their last seven openers, the longest ongoing streak … The returning Super Bowl champion has won its opener for 10 consecutive seasons. … Roethlisberger is 4-0 with nine TD passes and two interceptions in openers. … Tennessee started 10-0 last season.