Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger surpassed Terry Bradshaw's record as the team's all-time leading passer, but that was but one of the rare positive moments the team had in a surprising, 26-23 loss to the one-win Tennessee Titans on Thursday night.
The Steelers headed to Tennessee without two of their most-important defensive starters, linebacker LaMarr Woodley and strong safety Troy Polamalu, and soon found even more key players on both sides of the ball falling with injuries.
First to go was center Maurkice Pouncey, with a right leg injury. He was then followed in quick succession by guard Marcus Gilbert and tackle Ramon Foster, running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, linebacker Chris Carter, and safeties Ryan Clark and Will Allen.
Allen and Clark managed to return from their injuries, as did Gilbert, who did so in an emergency role after the Steelers dressed only seven offensive linemen for the game and Foster went out.
The injuries weren't the only reason that the Steelers played an ugly game, not just on offense and defense but also on special teams. A short week—a Sunday game followed by a Thursday contest—is particularly unforgiving to the traveling team and the lack of adequate preparation resulted in an error-filled outing for Pittsburgh.
Though Roethlisberger broke Bradshaw's record, he completed just 24 of his 40 passes, for 363 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His 9.1 yards per completion were far better than his Titans counterpart Matt Hasselbeck's (6.6), but his inability to get into a rhythm with his receivers, despite Tennessee's notoriously porous secondary, stalled a number of Steelers drives.
Surprisingly enough, Roethlisberger's most reliable and productive receiver was Redman, who before leaving the game with a leg injury of his own, caught four of the five passes thrown his way, for 105 yards, the first time since Frenchy Fuqua in 1970 that a Steelers running back had more than 100 receiving yards. It was better than his performance on the ground—Redman had just 14 yards on five carries.
Aside from Redman, the Steelers' receiving corps was relatively quiet. Mike Wallace had 94 yards and a touchdown but on just two catches (and four targets). Heath Miller caught six of the nine passes tossed his way for 67 yards, Emmanuel Sanders picked up four catches for 43 yards and Antonio Brown pulled down just four of the 10 passes thrown his way, for a paltry 20 yards.
Running the ball didn't come easily for Pittsburgh. After an impressive regular-season debut in which he averaged 5.2 yards per carry, Rashard Mendenhall had just six yards on six carries and then left with an Achilles' injury. Pittsburgh's most productive back was Baron Batch, who took over when both Redman and Mendenhall were sidelined. He had 10 rushes for 22 yards and one touchdown.
On defense, the Steelers sorely missed Polamalu. Titans running back Chris Johnson had his second-best performance of the season with 91 yard on 19 carries—a 4.8 yards-per-carry average—and they also gave up a one-yard Jamie Harper touchdown run as well.
And though Hasselbeck's passing was nearly as out-of-sync as Roethlisberger's, with 25 completions on 44 attempts, it was the timing of particular completions that the Steelers defense allowed that ultimately helped bring their undoing.
Ryan Mundy was again a liability, but no Steelers defender was as disappointing as cornerback Ike Taylor, who was punished again and again by Hasselbeck's passes. The lone bright spots in the secondary were Keenan Lewis and Ryan Clark, but they couldn't be everywhere on every play.
Other errors proved exceptionally costly. The Harper touchdown run came after the Titans blocked a Drew Butler punt and recovered the ball near the Steelers' goal line. On special teams, the Steelers kick return unit gave up 131 yards on five kicks, including a long of 32 yards. A Jason McCourty pick of Roethlisberger led to a Titans field goal in what was shaping up to otherwise be a productive Steelers drive—the previous play was a 55-yard catch and run by Redman.
And then there were the penalties. The Steelers are the most-penalized team in the league and they added four more, for 50 yards, to their total on Thursday. While it wasn't the 9.2 they have been averaging per game up to this point, every yard backwards—or every additional yard the opposing offense gets—the worse things are.
The Steelers made some baffling decisions against Tennessee. They knew going into the game that their secondary was weak and worth exploiting, but as the game wore on Roethlisberger took fewer deep shots, instead throwing Todd Haley-called screens, dump-offs and other short-yardage passes.
While the Steelers have run a mostly conservative offense up to this point and have been successful (as I discussed in detail in Thursday's State of the Union), this Titans game presented a solid opportunity for more risk-taking and play-making. Perhaps the off day Roethlisberger and his receivers were having had something to do with this almost timid offensive approach—this provides an explanation, yes, but not an excuse.
Sometimes, a team is on the winning end of a last-second field goal, as the Steelers were on Sunday against the Eagles; this week, it was the other way around. The two games, however, were not very similar. Pittsburgh, despite their rash of injuries, still did not have any reason to drop this contest.
A few third downs converted here, a few yards not allowed there and, of course, proper protection on what ultimately was a blocked punt could have easily resulted in a Steelers win. Instead, as head coach Mike Tomlin is wont to say, they did not execute in all three phases of the game and the result was a Steelers loss.
Now, Pittsburgh is 2-3 on the season and in third place in the AFC North. There's a lot of football yet to be played, but with this many injured players and so many errors in their fundamentals, there's a serious need to return to the drawing board and try to fix these problems before their playoff hopes get away from them.