The Pittsburgh Steelers shut down the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson on Sunday to pick up another huge victory without their franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
With only one win in Tennessee since the Titans moved there, the Steelers had an uphill battle without starting left tackle Max Starks and starting nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Their challenge got even bigger after losing quarterback Dennis Dixon and right guard Trai Essex to injury, as well as having to have further shuffling on the offensive line due to dehydration issues with tackles Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams.
The defense was up to the challenge, forcing six turnovers (with a seventh coming on special teams) as they once again put the Steelers in position to win, even with an offense that has struggled to move the ball.
Pittsburgh quarterbacks were not asked to do much against the Titans, but when they were the results were not good.
Dennis Dixon finished 4 of 6 for 18 yards and added 28 yards on three carries before injuring his knee.
Charlie Batch entered the game and only completed five of 11 passes for 25 yards, though he did have a touchdown pass to Mike Wallace come back due to a holding penalty.
Factoring in the sack yardage, Dixon and Batch combined for only 21 passing yards, averaging only 1.2 yards per attempt.
The quarterback play has severely handicapped the offense, allowing defenses to stack up against the run. The Steeler QBs have yet to throw a touchdown pass through the first two weeks.
Downfield throws have also been virtually nonexistent, with the long completion against the Titans being only 15 yards to Wallace.
On a positive note, the quarterbacks took care of the ball, which was necessary given the fact that they have no room for error.
The Steelers will take the win, but it was in spite of the quarterback play.
Season GPA: 1.20
The stats sheet will not look good—33 carries for 106 yards and a 3.3 yards per carry average—but make no mistake about it, the Steelers had a solid day on the ground.
Rashard Mendenhall had to run against a physical Titans defense that was stacking the line, as they did not fear the pass and the defense recognized that the Steelers were in run-run-pass mode.
The offensive line was also in a constant shuffle due to injuries and dehydration.
Mendenhall was able to battle through for 69 tough yards on 23 carries, including a 20-yard run.
At times, Mendenhall was gashing the Titans defense for big carries, but then the line would fail to give him any room, thus reducing his average.
Six of the Steelers seven first downs were picked up on the ground, the other by penalty, and it helped the Steelers hold an edge in time of possession, 33:40 to 26:20.
Isaac Redman only had eight yards on four carries, but picked up a big first down in a short yardage situation late in the game.
Even with the odds stacked against them, the ground game did just enough to help guide the Steelers to the 12 offensive points they scored.
Season GPA: 3.20
Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, and Antwaan Randle El combined for four receptions for 34 yards.
Playing behind a makeshift line, the he receivers were not given a chance beyond the short passes and were not getting open quick enough for the quarterbacks to find them.
Randle El had a chance to catch a low third-down pass from Batch and did not, and Ward could not haul in a fade pass in the end zone, though it was very well defended.
While the quarterback and line struggles, the receivers will have to get open quicker and take advantage of every opportunity.
They were matched up against a tough defensive backfield Sunday, but will have to be much better against Tampa Bay.
Season GPA: 2.85
Heath Miller, after having a very good game last week, only had two catches for three yards against Tennessee. He also was unable to bring in a catchable ball.
Beyond Miller, the other tight ends do not offer much in the passing game.
Matt Spaeth had one nice downfield block on a Mendenhall run, but overall, the blocking from the tight ends was not enough to help an injury-riddled offensive line.
David Johnson had a chance to seal a hole for Mendenhall but failed to establish a good block, resulting in lost yardage.
The Steelers will depend on these players as long as the offensive line shuffle continues.
Pittsburgh will have to get Miller more involved as a safety outlet in the upcoming weeks until Roethlisberger is back.
Season GPA: 2.85
The offensive line was already handicapped entering the game with an injured Max Starks, but it became worse when Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams had issues with dehydration and when Trai Essex left the game with a leg injury.
Pittsburgh allowed four sacks and the quarterbacks were under a lot of pressure throughout the day.
There were also three exchange problems between Maurkice Pouncey and the quarterbacks that could have been disastrous, but none resulted in turnovers.
Many were calling for Tony Hills to start at left tackle, but he did not perform better than Scott. The hope will be that Starks can return next week.
However, when the Titans did not sell out against the run the offensive line was able to open nice holes for Mendenhall to run through.
They also cannot be penalized too much, considering the health issues and all of the alignments that occurred throughout the game.
Season GPA: 2.20
The defensive line was also shorthanded without Casey Hampton.
Chris Hoke, though, stepped up and had an excellent game as he and the rest of the Steelers shut down the most dangerous running back in the NFL, Chris Johnson.
Johnson was looking to have his 13th straight 100-yard rushing game and nearly had it when he scored on a long touchdown run, but it was called back due to a holding penalty.
As a result, Johnson finished with only 34 yards on 16 carries.
Steve McLendon, who was brought up from the practice squad, had a fumble recovery. Hoke also had a fumble recovery.
Starters Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel were both very active up front and applied pressure on the quarterbacks.
Keisel had a sack and a forced fumble.
It was a dominating effort by the Steelers defensive line playing in temperatures nearing 100 degrees. As a unit, they helped hold the Titans to 46 yards rushing at only a 2.1 yard average.
Season GPA: 4.00
The linebackers contributed just as much to shutting down Johnson.
James Harrison hit Johnson very hard and very often. On one play in the third quarter it looked like Johnson wanted to hit the locker room.
Harrison later ran by Johnson and hit the quarterback to cause a fumble and was credited with two sacks and a fumble recovery on the day.
LaMarr Woodley recorded his second sack of the season and intercepted Vince Young after faking the rush and then dropping back into coverage.
Once again, Farrior looked fresh but had a quiet game.
For the second consecutive week, Lawrence Timmons was outstanding, leading the team with 15 tackles, 12 of them solo.
Timmons was a force, putting hard hits on Johnson, but maybe the highlight was when he beat Johnson to the outside, preventing him from scoring a touchdown.
Fox, Foote, and Sylvester all contributed as well.
Season GPA: 3.85
Pittsburgh’s pass defense held the Titans to 192 yards passing, with many of those coming late in the game when they played a prevent defense that allowed Kerry Collins to lead the Titans down the field to their only touchdown of the game.
The entire defensive backfield played a smart, physical game and kept the Titans receivers in front of them, not allowing the big play.
Bryant McFadden had a diving interception and Troy Polamalu intercepted Vince Young in the end zone in what otherwise could have been a game-changing score.
Polamalu was terrific on the day. He blew up the blocking along the line, forcing Johnson to the outside where the defensive line or linebackers were waiting for him.
Polamalu finished with three tackles for losses, including a perfectly-timed leaping tackle of Collins. The Titans were ready to score at the Steelers 1-yard line, but Polamalu timed the snap count, jumped over the line, and brought down the Titans quarterback.
Season GPA: 3.35
Pittsburgh finally had a special teams play go their way when Mewelde Moore handed the ball off to rookie Antonio Brown for a reverse on the opening kickoff. Brown took the ball 89 yards for a touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tennessee’s Marc Mariani had a long return but was caught from behind by Stevenson Sylvester, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Keyaron Fox.
Pittsburgh would later allow a 38-yard punt return, but overall the coverage units played well.
This was in part due to long hang times from Jeff Reed and Daniel Sepulveda on kickoffs and punts, respectively.
Reed had one touchback and converted on all four of his field goal attempts.
After having a strong opening week, Sepulveda struggled some Sunday, averaging 43.5 yards per punt with three touchbacks.
The Steelers had a spark in their return game from Brown, who not only had the return touchdown but returned a punt 21 yards.
Randle El also returned punts for only a four-yard average. However, given that the Steelers have no room for error, it is understandable that they want a dependable set of hands handling the punts.
Season GPA: 3.35
Once again, the Steelers defense carried the team to victory.
Not only did they shutdown the Titans offense, but they also had four sacks, created six turnovers, and put the Steelers offense in outstanding field position all day.
The coaching staff put together an excellent defensive game plan once again and executed it to near perfection.
The opening kickoff reverse call was brilliant and the team was even in position to recover a late onside kick after a timeout called by Mike Tomlin, though they failed to execute it on the field.
Offensively, the Steelers were still too conservative, but as the game progressed, the Steelers were clearly trying to play mistake-free football to preserve their lead.
Tomlin did have one poor challenge that would clearly not be reversed.
Overall, the coaches had this team ready to play in a hostile environment, but they will have to open up the offense up at some point.
Season GPA: 3.00
The Steelers must get healthy, especially along the lines.
Pittsburgh’s defense is playing at a very high level right now, particularly Timmons, and that is in part because of their defensive line depth.
While the offensive line is not where it needs to be yet, there is a clear dropoff between the starters and the backups and they will need a healthy Starks in there as soon as he is ready to go.
Given the problems Pittsburgh has at quarterback, they will need as much time to throw as possible as well as an effective running game to keep the pressure off of them.
However, as long as the defense can keep playing the way they are, Pittsburgh will be in position to win each week. But at some point the offense will need to generate more than one touchdown every two weeks.
For now, though, Pittsburgh is atop the AFC North after two good victories against quality opponents to start the season. Anything beyond this start will be a bonus until Roethlisberger comes back.
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