After pounding, Steelers grounded

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward called Sunday's 31-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans "a reality check."

Teammate Nate Washington said the Steelers "didn't play [their] type of football."

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin summed it up as, "They made critical plays, we made critical errors."

However you want to summarize it, the Steelers found themselves on the wrong end of things against the Titans. Tennessee's triumph at LP Field clinched the top seed in the AFC and solidified it as the conference favorite heading into the postseason.

The Steelers, now the No. 2 seed, made a run at the top seed title after winning five in a row, including victories over the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. But none of those clubs pounded Pittsburgh (11-4) for four quarters the way the Titans (13-2) did Sunday.

Pittsburgh couldn't match Tennessee's combination of intensity and efficiency. The Steelers lost the turnover battle 4-0 and were outscored 21-7 in the second half. The Steelers built a reputation this season on finishing games.

If anything, this loss proved the Steelers still have work to do if they aim to be the last team standing.

"It's definitely better that this happened now instead of the playoffs," Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said of the wake-up call. "[If not] we would have to wait until next year to come back and make the corrections."

Here is what else we learned about the Steelers in their defeat to the Titans:

Steelers didn't play smart

Tomlin said the Steelers were fine physically and emotionally, but they certainly didn't play smart.

Pittsburgh missed assignments. The Steelers fumbled five times, with QB Ben Roethlisberger losing two. Roethlisberger also threw two interceptions, and just before halftime, kicker Jeff Reed was wide left on a 33-yard field goal. That kick usually is a chip shot.

You get the idea.

"They outplayed us," Roethlisberger said.

The biggest call of the game cost the Steelers just two yards, but it gave Tennessee a first down and eventually a touchdown. Trailing 17-14, Pittsburgh stuffed the Titans at the 4 and forced a field goal attempt. But a Steelers player was called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the kick for trying to simulate the snap.

The official scorebook says the call was on Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison. But Tomlin and several Pittsburgh players weren't sure who the call was on.

"I guess someone in our front simulated a cadence," Tomlin said. "But I don't know."

Regardless of the offender, the infraction gave the Titans a new set of downs and they punched it in for a touchdown to go up 24-14 in the fourth to put the game out of reach. It was that type of day for Pittsburgh.

Nothing has changed

Despite the disappointment, Pittsburgh is in no worse shape than it was a week ago. That was the silver lining for the Steelers entering this weekend.

Pittsburgh had nothing to lose and everything to gain against Tennessee. In some ways, the Steelers played like it. They came up empty, but they were playing with house money.

The Steelers remain the second seed in the conference and will have a home game in Heinz Field in the divisional round of the playoffs. But if they happen to meet the Titans again, it also will be in Nashville.

"Obviously you have to come through here now; that's what today was about," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "They played hard ... They were an unbelievable team today."

The Steelers are banged up

Clark aggravated his right shoulder injury in the second half and left the locker room in a sling. Both Harrison (hip) and Roethlisberger (shoulder, ankle) also were roughed up in the first half but finished the game.

None of the starters' injuries appeared debilitating, but Tomlin said he will have updated information once players are evaluated during the week. Of the injured players, Roethlisberger and Clark seemed most in need of rest.

"The way I feel right now, [the way] my body feels, yeah," Roethlisberger admitted. "But I want to get out there and get some snaps and see. That is coach's call."

Added Clark, "I don't have a preference. I'm just a free safety, so I don't have preferences."

Pittsburgh's coaching staff now has a big decision to make: Should the Steelers play or rest their starters in the final regular-season game against the Cleveland Browns (4-11)?

Every coach is different and Tomlin, in his second year, is still working on a philosophy on end-of-the-year situations. He gave no indication Sunday that he would shut it down in Week 17, noting that Pittsburgh is playing against a divisional rival.

"We will evaluate this game like we always do," Tomlin said. "Hopefully we're better for it, and we will come out fighting."