The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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September 8, 2013

Titans take it to Steelers in season opener

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers kept insisting during a listless preseason the intensity would be there once the calendar flipped to September and the games started to count.

The calendar flipped.

The Steelers still flopped.

Sloppy at the start and injury ravaged by the finish, Pittsburgh opened 2013 with a dismal 16-9 loss to Tennessee on Sunday that exposed a variety of flaws that may take weeks for coach Mike Tomlin to address.

The offense managed just 32 yards rushing. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times.

And while the defense kept Tennessee under wraps, it still allowed a pair of lengthy scoring drives and failed to produce a turnover.

Even worse, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey ripped up his right knee and linebacker Larry Foote ruptured his biceps. Both players are likely out for the season, an emotional blow to a team already in transition.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Tomlin said. “Nobody cares about our problems. They’re glad we’ve got them. We need to understand that. We need to stick together and persevere.”

Pittsburgh will have to do it without the linchpin for its retooled offensive line and the chatty old sage on one of the league’s best linebacking groups.

Pouncey left in the first quarter when teammate David DeCastro fell on his right leg at the end of a running play. Foote left in the fourth quarter after Tennessee running back Chris Johnson slipped through his grasp.

“That’s a tough loss for us,” nose tackle Steve McLendon said. “But the thing we have to do man is come back and be ready to work. The guy behind him has to take it off his shoulder and be ready. The opportunity is a small window.”

So is Pittsburgh’s margin for error. Already considered the third team in an expected three-way battle with Cincinnati and Baltimore for the AFC North title, the Steelers hardly appeared ready for the bounce back season they’ve been talking about for months.

Roethlisberger never looked comfortable while completing 21 of 33 passes for 191 yards and an interception to go with a garbage-time touchdown.

He spent a portion of the day on his back and had trouble dealing with a revitalized Tennessee defense invigorated by the arrival of assistant Gregg Williams.

“Not good enough, point blank,” Roethlisberger said. “No excuses. I don’t make excuses. It just wasn’t good enough.”

Tennessee’s Jackie Battle ran for a 3-yard touchdown in the second quarter and Rob Bironas kicked three field goals for the Titans. Johnson added 70 clock-chewing yards as Tennessee snapped Pittsburgh’s 10-game winning streak in home openers.

Following a bumpy offseason in which players such as Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton departed, Pittsburgh insisted it was not rebuilding.

At the moment, however, it certainly looks like it.

The Titans didn’t dominate. Then again, they didn’t have to.

Content to work between the tackles with Johnson and Battle, Tennessee held the ball for more than 34 minutes.

The subdued ending hardly seemed possible after one of the more memorable opening weekend flubs by Tennessee kick returner Darius Reynaud.

The Titans won the coin toss and elected to receive. Shaun Suisham’s squib kick was fielded at the Tennessee 1. Reynaud took two small steps backward into the end zone and dropped to a knee.

Officials originally called the play a touchback and placed the ball at the Tennessee 20, but referee Jerome Boger signaled a safety after ruling the ball never actually crossed the goal line.

Pittsburgh’s euphoria lasted all of eight plays. The Steelers were driving following the free kick when DeCastro fell on Pouncey’s right knee. Pouncey was on the ground for several minutes before being taken off on a golf cart, his season over before it began.

Kelvin Beachum stepped in, but the drive ended when Redman – the de facto starter with rookie Le’Veon Bell sidelined by a sprained right foot – fumbled into the end zone.

“It’s unacceptable,” Redman said. “It wasn’t a guy hitting more the ball coming out. It was something we work on every single day in practice.”

The unusual 2-0 lead held up for a while, however, until the Titans got things going late in the first half.

Tennessee safety Alterraun Verner intercepted Roethlisberger at the Pittsburgh 49 and the Titans reeled off a 12-play, 49-yard drive that featured a return to the grind-it-out play the team envisioned when it brought in three new starters along the offensive line, including 10th overall draft pick Chance Warmack.

Battle converted a fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 25 to extend the drive then finished it off by plowing 3 yards for a touchdown with 46 seconds left in the half.

Notes: Roethlisberger became the 35th quarterback in NFL history to go over 30,000 career yards passing. He’s at 30,035 yards in 10 seasons. ... Tennessee RB Shonn Greene left with a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return. ... The Titans travel to Houston next Sunday. The Steelers play at Cincinnati on Monday night Sept. 16. ... Pittsburgh’s last loss in its home opener came in 2002 against Oakland.

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