Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson (28) runs around Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote (50) in the third quarter of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
by Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Tennessee Titans opened the season in reverse. The Pittsburgh Steelers, however, appear to be the ones backing up.
Chris Johnson ran for 70 clock-chewing yards and the Titans overcame an embarrassing early flub to shut down the Steelers 16-9 on Sunday.
Jackie Battle ran for a 3-yard touchdown in the second quarter and Rob Bironas kicked three field goals for the Titans. Tennessee’s revamped defense did the rest.
Pittsburgh managed just 195 total yards and lost a series of players to injury, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey left in the first quarter with a right knee injury and will likely miss an extended amount of time.
The Titans gave up more points than any team in the NFL last season and brought in Gregg Williams as an assistant. A year removed from his role in bounty scandal involvement with the New Orleans Saints that to a league suspension, the former defensive coordinator’s impact was immediate.
Williams has built a career out of turning defenses around; Tennessee appears to be well ahead of schedule. The Titans gave up a 471 points in 2012 but opened 2013 by sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times, forcing two turnovers and holding Pittsburgh to just 32 yards rushing.
The Steelers came in with 10 straight victories in home openers, the longest active streak in the league. They went winless in the preseason, but stressed they were fine.
Doesn’t look like it.
Following a bumpy offseason in which Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton departed, Pittsburgh insisted it was not rebuilding. Maybe, but the refurbishing project is going to take some work.
The Titans didn’t dominate. They didn’t have to. Content to work between the tackles with Johnson and Battle, Tennessee controlled the clock. The Titans held the ball for over 34 minutes and asked quarterback Jake Locker to do little more than avoid mistakes.
Locker completed 11 of 20 passes for 125 yards, but led Tennessee on a lengthy scoring drive early in the fourth quarter that gave the Titans a 13-2 lead and sent most of the crowd streaming toward the exit.
The subdued ending hardly seemed possible after one of the more memorable opening weekend flubs by Tennessee kick returner Darius Reynaud.
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, 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 guard David DeCastro fell on Pouncey’s right knee. The three-time Pro Bowler laid on the ground for several minutes before being taken off on a golf cart, then sent to the hospital for an MRI.
Kelvin Beachum stepped in for Pouncey, but the drive ended when Isaac Redman — the de facto starter with rookie Le’Veon Bell sidelined by a sprained right foot — fumbled into the end zone.
The unusual 2-0 lead held up for until the Titans got things going late in the first half. Safety Alterraun Verner intercepted Roethlisberger at the Pittsburgh 49 and the Titans reeled off a 12-play 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.
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