If you listened to ESPN's Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn, the Tennessee Titans were supposed to bury the Pittsburgh Steelers. "They're old, they're done, they're finished," pundits Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon and Woody Paige stated throughout the week.
The Steelers were hurt, their defense was mediocre and Ben Roethlisberger was a few hits from missing some serious action. Instead, Pittsburgh played their best football since the team defeated the New York Jets in the 2010 AFC championship game.
Steelers fans have to wonder, was this win an aberration or a sign the Steelers are still Super Bowl contenders who were merely off to a slow start? Here are aspects to take from the game that prove the latter is a good bet.
In four games, the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers have given up 100 yards rushing to Ray Rice and Arian Foster after not surrendering a 100-yard game since 2008. Chris Johnson seemed to be rounding into form after a slow start, and run-stuffers Aaron Smith and James Harrison were out with injuries.
Instead of giving up on themselves, the unit played the best team defense of the season. Wherever Chris Johnson went, he was surrounded by black and gold jerseys. Young defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward provided much-needed energy and speed to the aging defense, and combined for six tackles and 1.5 sacks.
James Farrior was the tackling machine Steelers fans were so used to seeing, and Lawrence Timmons was all over the field filling in for James Harrison at outside 'backer. LaMar Woodley picked up the slack on the other end, at one point tackling Matt Hasselbeck and his blocker and also added an interception. As a team, the defense accounted for three sacks, seven quarterback hits and seven passes defensed.
No Harrison, no Smith? No problem.
Polamalu was phenomenal on Sunday, and was once again the Samoan monster flying all over the field. No. 43 had not had a game like that since he injured his Achilles' against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16 last season.
One former Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison, will be out for a while. The team still has one left in the form of Troy Polamalu. Polamalu is the most important player on the defense, but had not been the game-changer Steelers fans know him to be.
Polamalu was like a crazy ex-girlfriend; everywhere a Titan turned, he was there. He continued to snuff out anything Chris Johnson tried, and batted down three of Matt Hasselbeck's passes. Seeing the explosive, playmaking Polamalu was a sight for sore eyes in Pittsburgh.
Incredibly Polamalu still has not forced any turnovers on the year, but if he keeps playing like he did on Sunday, it is only a matter of time.
After allowing Ben Roethlisberger to get beaten up four weeks in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line finally has a performance to be proud of.
In a week where the quarterback desperately needed some protection, the team only allowed Roethlisberger to be hit twice and brought down for one sack against a solid Tennessee Titans pass rush. And to think, there is still significant room for improvement.
Max Starks made an immediate impact starting at left tackle after being signed last week, and will only get better as he gets whipped into football shape and clicks with the rest of the unit. Chris Kemoeatu, one of the team's few reliable linemen, was inactive and should return shortly. Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey did not finish the game, nor did rookie Marcus Gilbert, but neither injury seems too serious.
One sack and 174 yards rushing against a top-10 defense was the game the Steelers needed. A starting five of Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Legursky and Gilbert is a unit the team can win with.
On the whole, the game was a blueprint for the way things used to be be done in Pittsburgh. The team shut down one of the most explosive runners in the game. The offense let bruising running back Isaac Redman carry the load, then opened up a huge hole for a 76-yard gain to Jonathan Dwyer, whose 11 carries were two more than his career total previously.
The offensive line finally gave Ben Roethlisberger time to take advantage of his Young Money Crew of receivers. Heck, even Hines Ward partied like it was 2006 with seven catches and two touchdowns. Only a greedy play, a fake-spike-turned-interception with time running down in the first half spoiled a perfect day from the Steelers quarterback. Meanwhile, the defense gang-tackled the Titans and made life miserable for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
It was only one game, and the team still has a long way to go. Still, don't count the Steelers out just yet as Super Bowl contenders.
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