Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- For three-and-a-half quarters Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense owned a rare trifecta.
The unit couldn’t run. It couldn’t pass. It couldn’t block.
Yet in crunch time, Pittsburgh made a difficult decision. It went against the grain -- and its long-standing identity -- and utilized a shotgun-style, no-huddle offense in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Suddenly the Steelers could pass, they could block, and they could even run at times when needed. The result was a 13-10 season-opening overtime victory over the stubborn Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.
After stalling most of the night, the Steelers flipped the switch and went Tom Brady on the Titans to the tune of 363 passing yards. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw the football 43 times, which is a two-game total for him in some weeks. The ploy brought out the best in the offense and its quarterback when it mattered.
The quick-hitting, no-huddle offense helped the Steelers gain 173 yards on their final three drives, which resulted in the game-tying and game-winning field goals by kicker Jeff Reed in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Is this something the defending Super Bowl champions could go to all season?
“Maybe,” said Roethlisberger smiling, showing he’s not completely opposed to the idea.
The Steelers tried to control the clock and run the football early. But the combination of a very good Titans defense and a porous and inconsistent Steelers running game made it nearly impossible to stick to the original game plan.
It was clear after the first quarter that Pittsburgh could not win this game on the ground. The Steelers’ first four runs amounted to minus-4 yards. On the night, they gained 36 yards on the ground in 23 carries, which is an awful 1.6 yards per carry. Willie Parker led the team with 19 yards on 13 carries, and his longest run was for 8 yards.
Even in victory, this was an atypical night for the Steelers (1-0).
Pittsburgh had two 100-yard receivers in Santonio Holmes (131 yards) and Hines Ward (103 yards). The pass-to-run ratio was nearly double in favor of the pass, 43-to-23. Special teams were exceptional all night. Yet the Steelers' defense gave up a touchdown by being sloppy right before halftime.
Overall, it was so not 2008.
“We talked about ... winning the trench warfare. We didn’t do that,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who admitted the reigning champs have a lot of work ahead of them. “I thought we had to take care of the football and win the turnover battle because [Titans quarterback] Kerry Collins is great at taking care of the football. We didn’t do that. Chances are the more violent team usually wins. The jury is out on that.”
Another thing that wasn’t 2008 was losing Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. While trying to recover a blocked field goal attempt in the second quarter, Titans tight end Alge Crumpler fell awkwardly on Polamalu’s knee. The Steelers star didn’t return to the game.
Tomlin said afterward that Polamalu has an MCL sprain in his left knee and speculated that he could be out of the lineup for the next three to six weeks. Still, the defense held firm and only allowed three points in the second half and overtime, which was enough to preserve the victory. But Collins managed a solid performance, notching 244 yards, one touchdown, one interception and an 81.1 passer rating, with most of his success coming with Polamalu out of the game.
“I was telling [Steelers backup quarterback] Charlie [Batch], when he’s not out there, it’s just not the same,” Roethlisberger said of missing Polamalu. “He’s just a phenomenal player and you could see it tonight. We wish him a speedy, speedy recovery.”
How Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense from a year ago adjusts to life without Polamalu will be one of the season's most interesting storylines.
There are a lot of plays that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has built around Polamalu’s unique talent and leadership. So there is a very good chance Pittsburgh’s defensive playbook will be condensed over the next several weeks. Backup safety Tyrone Carter replaced Polamalu in the second half and recorded one tackle.
The great news for the Steelers is they earned an important victory against a likely playoff contender in the AFC. Teams can never predict how things will shake out with potential tiebreakers down the road.
Pittsburgh also won its seventh straight season opener, which is the longest streak in the NFL. Tomlin's crew has 10 days to prepare for its next game, Sept. 20 on the road against the Chicago Bears.
“Hopefully we will learn some lessons so the road will be a little less bumpy next time,” Tomlin said. “Such is life in the NFL. We will take the victory.”