PITTSBURGH — The Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers kicked off the 2009 season Thursday night and it turned into a heavyweight fight.
But after the Steelers finally won the fray 13-10 in overtime, it was the Titans who were picking themselves up off the canvas, wondering exactly what had hit them.
“A loss like that, you can’t really hang your head. It was pretty much like one of those old school boxing fights that used to go 15 rounds,” linebacker Keith Bulluck said. “That’s the kind of game it was tonight. Two defenses showed up. The offenses made plays here and there when they needed to, and we just didn’t give our offense a chance to get back on the field. It was a 15-round old school Muhammad Ali-[Joe] Frazier fight that went the distance.”
The Steelers won the decision, thanks to Jeff Reed’s 33-yard field goal at the 10:28 mark, leaving the Titans to ponder a loss they say never should have been.
Special teams miscues hurt the Titans in the first half with a missed 37-yard field goal by Rob Bironas followed by a 31-yard attempt that Pittsburgh’s Aaron Smith blocked.
Also, in the first half, quarterback Kerry Collins was intercepted by Troy Polamalu on a deep throw for Kenny Britt.
Defensively, despite being solid against the run  (36 yards on 23 carries), the Titans surrendered 363 yards passing to Ben Roethlisberger, and were not able to give the offense a chance with the football in the overtime.
“Unfortunately those types of things are difficult, because we really didn’t lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight. We lost to the Tennessee Titans. We beat ourselves,” said receiver Nate Washington, who left the Steelers for Tennessee this past off-season. “We had a lot of missed opportunities out there that we could have taken advantage of and we didn’t. Those types of things cannot be missed, especially when you play the Super Bowl champions in their hometown.”
Running back Chris Johnson, who managed 57 yards on 15 carries including a 32-yarder, said the Titans simply didn’t help themselves on offense when they had the chance. The drive charts bore that out, as Tennessee had drives of 55, 35, 45, 38 and 24 yards that all ended with no points. That included two missed kicks, an interception, a Bo Scaife fumble and a punt.
Perhaps there was a bit of irony in that the final score Thursday night was the same one – 13-10 – that they lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens in last year’s playoffs. And it was similar in that the Titans squandered their opportunities to put the game away.
“We shouldn’t have even been in that situation anyway, in overtime, hoping to get the ball, hoping for our defense to get us a stop,” Johnson said. “We just didn’t take advantage at the end of our drives. When we get chances, we have to take advantage of that. We’ve got to score, and we won’t be in that situation.”
Even the opportunity to reach overtime nearly didn’t come, as the Titans staggered in the final minute of regulation, after a 28-yard punt by Craig Hentrich set the Steelers up in business at their own 42. Roethlisberger then marched Pittsburgh into field goal range and hit Hines Ward with a pass over the middle for a 30-yard gain – except that a hustling Michael Griffin knocked the ball free, and Stephen Tulloch recovered it to keep the Titans tied at 10-10 with 51 seconds left, and eventually force the overtime.
“If he scores a touchdown, it’s six points. If I make a tackle, they may kick a field goal to go up three. They may try to burn all our timeouts and kick it at the end. It was try to make a play, because if we make the play, we’ve still got an opportunity,” Griffin explained. “And we did have another opportunity.”
In the first half, the game was scoreless until the 1:22 mark when Roethlisberger, using the two-minute drill, took the Steelers 79 yards in just five plays to go up 7-0 with a 34-yard TD toss to Santonio Holmes. Holmes sprinted down the right seam and found himself open in the end zone between Griffin and Chris Hope to give Pittsburgh the lead.
On the ensuing series, the Titans took advantage of All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu being lost with a sprained MCL, by exploiting the left side of the Steelers defense.
First, Collins found a wide-open Kenny Britt for a 57-yard gain that took the ball to the Steelers 14. Then, with a Steelers defender in his face, Collins hit Justin Gage in the corner of the end zone for the tying touchdown with 48 seconds to play in the half.
The second half proved to be no less a struggle for the teams to score points, as after a scoreless third quarter, the Titans took their first lead of the night when Bironas connected on a 45-yard attempt at the 11:03 mark of the fourth quarter.
However, the Steelers pulled even on Reed’s 32-yarder with 2:57 to play. The Titans made sure the drive, which reached the 9-yard line, would not go any further when Mewelde Moore was stopped twice for one yard on second-and-2, and for no gain by William Hayes on third-and-1, forcing the field goal attempt.
In the overtime, Roethlisberger was superb, carving up the Titans in a no-huddle offense, needing 10 plays to go 63 yards to get Reed in range for the game-winner. The Steelers quarterback completed 6 of 8 on the decisive drive for 60 yards, including a 22-yard completion to Mike Wallace that set Reed’s winning kick up at the 15-yard line.
“A lot of their plays were broken plays, all night. They gained the majority of their yardage on broken plays. That’s what Ben Roethlisberger is good at doing,” Bulluck said. “It’s definitely frustrating, because as a defense we got them off the field pretty much all night, and when it counts, we obviously didn’t give our offense a chance to win it in overtime.”
There was culpability for the offense and special teams as well.
“It was a shame we let that one get away, but if you’re on the road against a good football team, and you make the mistakes we made tonight, you’re going to lose more ballgames than you win,” said Collins, who finished 22 of 35 for 244 yards. “It’s disappointing. There’s no question we were in a position to win that game.”