PITTSBURGH _ The new-look Tennessee Titans looked a lot like the old school Titans of about a decade or so ago.
Tennessee lined up and played smashmouth football on both sides of the ball, taking a 16-9 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
Except for a boneheaded move on the opening kickoff where Darius Reynaud came out of the end zone to field the ball and when back in for a safety and a last-ditch TD drive by Ben Roethlisberger, it was the type of dominant Titans performance that was rarely, if ever, seen last season.
The Titans held the Steelers to 0-of-6 on third downs in the second half, sacked Roethlisberger five times, and the offense controlled the ball for 34:01 with a punishing running game and timely passes by Jake Locker.
That time of possession number is even more impressive, considering that following the safety, Tennessee's offense did not touch the ball until the 8:16 mark of the first period.
“We talked about adversity when the game started,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “I think most coaches do that. When you go on the road, there's going to be some things that aren't going to go our way … We have to hang in there and overcome that, and I think we showed we could do that”
It looked bad for Tennessee at the outset, as Pittsburgh converted three straight times on third down and moved easily inside the Titans' 5-yard line. That's when Ike Redman fumbled and Moises Fokou recovered in the Tennessee end zone for a touchback.
“It just shows you what kind of defense we have,” said running back Chris Johnson, who hard-earned yards on 25 carries Sunday. “They drove the ball down, but our defense didn't give up. I think it kind of helped us out.”
The Titans then set about going toe-to-toe with the favored Steelers, and finally caught a break when Alterraun Verner, who had to battle all of training camp to keep his starting job, made a diving interception of a Roethlisberger pass at the Pittsburgh 49-yard line.
From there, the Titans decided to put the game in the hands of their rushing attack, calling 11 runs on a 12-play march that ended with Jackie Battle bulling in from three yards out with 44 seconds to go in the first half.
Battle, a sensation of preseason, was only in the game because Shonn Greene suffered a minor knee injury earlier on the drive. Battle also converted a key fourth-and-1 play to keep the drive alive, pounding his way forward after being hit twice short of the first-down marker.
“I got hit in the backfield, and but I still had some momentum going forward, and I just kept my legs pumping, and I got the first down,” said Battle of the run.
As for the touchdown, he said he forgot momentarily that it actually came in a hostile environment.
“It was kind of funny, because normally when you score a touchdown, you expect some cheers. I kind of forgot we were away, and there was dead silence. It was surreal at the moment, but it was cool to score the first touchdown of the season,” Battle said.
In the second half, the Tennessee defense, maligned as the worst unit in franchise history a year ago, played with more and more confidence as the game went on.
After allowing the Steelers to convert 4 of 7 third-down tries in the first half, Tennessee clamped down, not allowing a single third-down conversion in the second half.
“Everybody was swarming. Our front four and our back four did what they were supposed to do,” said Zach Brown, who had two of the five sacks of Roethlisberger.
While the defense was controlling the Steelers, the Titans offense was content mostly to run the ball and get the occasional timely throw from quarterback Jake Locker to keep the upper hand. The Titans were just 6 of 15 on third down for the game, but were 4 of 9 in the second half. Locker was 11 of 20 for 125 yards with no touchdowns or turnovers.
The result was that Tennessee was able to slowly but surely burn the clock and add to its lead in the second half with three Rob Bironas field goals.
Bironas hit from 26 yards out in the third quarter to make it 10-2 and cap an 11-play, 37-yard drive. He connected from 44 yards away to cap an 11-play, 62-yard march that pushed the lead to 13-2. And finally he hit from 27 yards following a 27-yard return from Reynaud that set up that final field goal and a 16-2 advantage.
Tennessee withstood a hurry-up TD drive by Roethlisberger who found Jerricho Cotchery on fourth-and-goal to cut the margin to a touchdown.
But George Wilson recovered an onside kick and Tennessee ran out the clock and claimed the victory.
By that point, most Steelers fans had given up and headed for the exits.
“I've been in a couple of games in that black and gold when we weren't playing as well as they wanted us to play, and they will get out of there on you,” said ex-Steelers receive Nate Washington, now a Titan. “Those fans expect the best, and there is a tradition around here to play hard, win and give everything you have. When they feel like those things aren't going that way, they will not hesitate to let you know it and then get out of there.”
The Titans now are 1-0 for the first time in their three seasons under Munchak as they head to AFC South rival Houston next week to face the defending division champs, the Texans.
“It was great for morale. We kind of got a little small taste of what our team can do. There's still a lot of little stuff we need to clean up. We've got to build off of it, because we've got Houston next week. It's got to be a short memory, because we've got to get ready for them,” Verner said.