PITTSBURGH (AP) — The game lasted 64½ minutes, yet it seemed only eight minutes mattered to Ben Roethlisberger.
The two minutes at the end of the first half. The two minutes at the end of the second half. And the slightly more than four minutes in overtime that decided a Titans-Steelers game controlled by two of the NFL’s best and most physical defenses, except when Roethlisberger had the ball in his hands and little time to work with.
|Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is tackled by Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan after making a catch for a first down in the fourth quarter Sept. 10, at Heinz Field. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Roethlisberger didn’t let the Steelers’ offense get discouraged when an apparent game-winning drive ended abruptly on a Hines Ward fumble at the Titans’ 4 with less than a minute to play. He came back to lead the decisive overtime drive that ended with Jeff Reed’s 33-yard field goal, and the Super Bowl-winning Steelers beat Tennessee 13-10 in the NFL opener Thursday night.
The Steelers did it despite lacking a running game and, for much of the night, any flow or rhythm on offense despite Roethlisberger’s 363 yards passing — the third most of his career. It was the biggest passing day by a Steelers quarterback in a season opener since the NFL merger in 1970.
This is only Roethlisberger’s sixth season, yet he has directed 20 such comeback drives after Pittsburgh trailed or was tied in the fourth quarter. He’s had seven since the start of last season, including the decisive 78-yard drive that ended with Santonio Holmes’ 6-yard TD catch to beat Arizona 27-23 in the Super Bowl.
“I told coach (Mike Tomlin) I didn’t want to start this already,” Roethlisberger said. “I struggled early, that’s just jitters and excitement. I’m really proud of the way we bounced back.”
Especially with the way the Titans defense started out shoving the Steelers around on their own field, limiting them to 1 yard in the first quarter. The Titans didn’t need to stomp on any Terrible Towels, like they did in beating the Steelers 31-14 in December — their defense trampled over the Steelers’ offense instead.
The Steelers finally began moving the ball after shifting into a no-huddle offense late in the first half, and Roethlisberger needed only five plays to lead a 79-yard drive completed by Holmes’ 34-yard scoring catch.
Roethlisberger to Holmes. Sound familiar?
“Ben does a great job when things break down and you give him time down there — he shakes tackles and sacks and he’s going to make plays,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “And that’s what he did.”
Holmes had nine catches for 131 yards and a touchdown — curiously, the same statistics he had in the Super Bowl.
According to Holmes, the Steelers didn’t get down when safety Troy Polamalu injured his left knee in the first half, Roethlisberger was sacked four times, Willie Parker was held to 19 yards on 13 carries or, most of all, when Ward fumbled. Despite the fumble, Ward made eight catches for 103 yards.
Polamalu, one of the NFL’s top defensive players, is expected to be out 3 to 6 weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament, though that prognosis was little more than a guess by Tomlin.
“I knew the game was over with (in the fourth quarter),” Holmes said. “But, when it (the fumble) happened, I knew we had overtime. Those guys weren’t going to go anywhere.”
The Titans were convinced they should have won it long before then, especially after leading 10-7 in the fourth. However, Rob Bironas missed two field-goal attempts inside the 40, a 37-yarder after a bad snap and a 31-yarder that was blocked by Aaron Smith.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t beat the Tennessee Titans, the Tennessee Titans beat the Tennessee Titans,” said wide receiver Nate Washington, the former Steelers player.
Kerry Collins was 22 of 35 for 244 yards, including a 14-yard scoring pass to Justin Gage, but, like Roethlisberger, didn’t have a reliable running game. Chris Johnson carried 15 times for 57 yards, but more than half of those came on a 32-yard run.
Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck compared it to the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fights of the 1970s, back when the Titans’ predecessors, the Oilers, played numerous physical, punishing games against Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain.
“It’s pretty much like one of those old-school boxing matches that used to go 15 rounds,” Bulluck said. “Two defenses showed up, the offenses made plays here and there.”
Mostly, the Steelers made them when Roethlisberger was in desperation mode.
“He did it in the Super Bowl and now in this first overtime,” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said of his quarterback. “Yeah, I would think people would start giving him his due as a player.”