Steelers 38, Titans 17
Seven days ago, Max Starks was wondering if he'd ever play in the NFL again. A week later, he was back in a familiar spot, giving Ben Roethlisberger time to do his thing.
Starks received the game ball from Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin after the Steelers rolled over the Tennessee Titans 38-17 on Sunday. Not bad for a guy who hadn't played a game in nearly a year.
''He stepped up,'' Roethlisberger said after tying a career high with five touchdown passes. ''We brought him to town this week ... and it's like 'OK, let's see how we're going to use him.'''
Turns out even more than Starks or the Steelers thought.
A knee injury to center Maurkice Pouncey and a shoulder injury to tackle Marcus Gilbert turned Starks' part-time debut into a full-time gig. He played nearly every snap in his first action since hurting his neck last November.
The injury appeared to put his career in jeopardy. The team cut him after seven seasons before training camp as a cost-cutting measure. Starks spent two months getting back into shape and waiting for a call. When it came from the Steelers (3-2), he didn't let it go to waste.
Starks practiced all of three days before starting at left tackle. He then helped Pittsburgh's running game get going - reserves Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman combined for 156 yards in relief of injured starter Rashard Mendenhall - while holding the Titans (3-2) to just one sack.
''Our biggest goal was to keep (Roethlisberger) upright,'' Starks said. ''And we knew he'd perform if we did that.''
Did he ever.
Roethlisberger tied the franchise record he shares with Terry Bradshaw and Mark Malone despite a sprained left foot that forced him to wear a specialized cleat.
Though he limped at times between plays, he proved nimble enough to complete 24 of 34 passes for 228 yards while throwing two scores to Hines Ward and one each to Mike Wallace, Heath Miller and David Johnson.
''He's an A-player,'' Tomlin said. ''He's got to play (that way) in order for us to do well.''
A month into the season, the Steelers (3-2) finally looked like the team that rolled to the AFC championship a year ago. The defense, missing starters James Harrison, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, held Tennessee running back Chris Johnson to 51 yards on 14 carries and sacked quarterback Matt Hasselbeck three times.
It's the kind of performance Tomlin was looking for after watching his team get rolled in Houston a week ago. The Steelers practiced twice in pads for the first - and only - time this season and the increased workload appeared to have a carry-over effect.
''I think it sent a message that we need to play more physical,'' said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who had an interception and 1 1/2 sacks. ''We went out there and we brought it.''
The Titans saw their three-game winning streak snapped after letting a chance to grab early momentum get away. They drove the length of the field to start the game but only managed a field goal despite taking seven snaps in a goal-to-go situation.
''We just lost rhythm,'' running back Javon Ringer said. ''Things just didn't go our way this game after the first drive.''
Instead, the Steelers finally resembled the defending AFC champions.
''I think they just made it hard for us today,'' said Tennessee coach Mike Munchak. ''I wouldn't necessarily say we were flat, but we didn't play well. You can't do that against a good team.''
The Titans consider themselves one, too, but didn't play the part. Johnson sprinted 21 yards on the game's first play but it would be his lone highlight. He tweaked his hamstring in the second half and sat out the fourth quarter. Johnson is expected to be fine and Munchak said his star running back likely could have returned if the game was closer.
The Steelers made sure that was not the case.
Dwyer, taking handoffs for just the second time in his career, ripped off a 76-yard run, the longest from scrimmage by a Steeler in five seasons. Redman provided some grit between the tackles and served as an extra layer of protection for Roethlisberger, ably picking up blitzing defenders.
''It was put up or shut up,'' Redman said.
And the Steelers put up following a sluggish opening month to the season in which Roethlisberger was knocked around and the defense was bowled over.
Neither happened on Sunday and the Steelers started a key five-week stretch with its best game of the season.
''It's a good win for us,'' Tomlin said. ''Hopefully it will provide momentum for us as we move forward.''
Notes: Roethlisberger now has 152 career touchdown passes, second-most in team history behind Bradshaw's 212. ... Miller's touchdown grab was the 30th of his career, making him the eighth Steeler to reach the 30-touchdown plateau. ... Chris Johnson has struggled during his career against the Steelers. He now has 211 yards in four games, an average of 52.8 yards. His career average per game is 94.1. ... The Steelers have won three straight in the series. ... Pittsburgh tackle Marcus Gilbert left the game with a left shoulder injury. ... The Steelers host Jacksonville next week while the Titans are off ... Pittsburgh's 38 points were the most allowed by the Titans since giving up 42 to San Diego in a 42-17 loss on Dec. 25, 2009.