- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Fisher and Bill Cowher have similar philosophies. To win in the NFL, a team needs to play good defense, not make turnovers and control the football.
The Titans taught the Steelers a lesson Sunday. Controlling the football is one thing, but controlling the football and settling for field goals can cost you a football game. As the Steelers studied the stat sheet after their 30-13 loss to the Titans, they had to fume. They had 75 plays to the Titans' 39. They possessed the ball 35:50 to the Titans' 24:10. They gained 351 yards to the Titans' 195.
But the tone of the game was set in the first nine minutes. Cowher and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey threw their offensive playbook at the Titans defense, and 11 defenders almost passed out from fatigue. Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox opened the game with a 15-play, 77-yard drive to the Titans 8 that lasted 9:17.
Everyone was tired. CBS couldn't get to the commercial break because of the continuous action by the Steelers. Titans linebacker Peter Sirmon literally had his back broken on a block by fullback Dan Kreider, forcing him to spend Sunday night with multiple fractures to his transverse process. Defensive linemen Carlos Hall and James Atkins had to be helped off the field because they were so tired.
"We were on the field something like 20 minutes," defensive end Jevon Kearse said. "It was hard to overcome that. It was too long. Guys were coming in and out, but we had to stay together and suck it up."
What helped the Titans catch their breath was when the Steelers' opening drive (16 plays, 56 yards) stalled at the Titans 8 and Jeff Reed had to boot a 26-yard field goal.
"They felt they had gassed us early, and they tried to make it worse by going into a hurry-up offense," safety Lance Schulters said. "But we were too strong for them."
Along the sidelines, Titans offensive players didn't know what to do. Here they were in a playoff environment in Heinz Field, they hadn't broken at sweat, and the game was almost nine minutes old. Quarterback Steve McNair sat on the team's bench until his muscles started to tighten up from the inactivity. Eventually, he had to grab a football and loosen up.
"Steve kept telling us to stay patient, and stay calm, but we know our first drive was going to be difficult," halfback Eddie George said.
How right he was. George gained 4 yards on his first rushing attempt. McNair completed two passes for no yards, and the Titans had to punt. Maddox came back with some hurry-up plays and drove the Steelers 64 yards for an Amos Zereoue touchdown run. The Titans trailed 10-0 and had run only three offensive plays to the Steelers' 25.
"We knew we had to take advantage of opportunities, and if we did, we'd be OK," McNair said.
Opportunity came in the way of a red flag and a backup linebacker. The Steelers made a risky pass play on their third possession. Maddox dropped back into his end zone after a first-down incompletion to throw a pass. Linebacker Rocky Boiman, filling in for injured Sirmon, trapped Maddox at the goal line as he stumbled to throw a pass. Officials ruled that Maddox was across the goal line and that the Steelers should have a third down at their 1.
Fisher threw the red flag to signal an instant replay challenge. It was the most important throw of the day.
"I felt the safety challenge was accurate when I saw the replay," Fisher said. "That was a big play for us."
Referee Walt Anderson overturned the call on the field and credited Boiman with a safety. The Titans trailed 10-2 and, most important, got the ball back. McNair followed on the first offensive play by catching the Steelers on a defense in which the secondary bracketed the field in quarters and Drew Bennett was in man coverage against cornerback Chad Scott. Bennett caught the 42-yard McNair bomb and two plays later caught a 10-yard fade pass on Dewayne Washington for a touchdown. The Titans trailed 10-9.
The Steelers followed with another field goal drive to extend their lead to 13-9, but the Titans appeared to be the more confident team.
The problem for the Steelers is that they can't run on the Titans. Fisher came up with a unique game plan in which defensive ends played in tackle spots and tackles played at end.
Ends Kearse and Carlos Hall pressured Maddox from the inside, but more important, the Steelers running attack was stalled after the first couple of drives. Guard to guard, the Steelers have one of the best interior lines in football with guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons and center Jeff Hartings. But the quickness of Kearse and Hall, who weigh less than 260 pounds apiece, hurt them.
"We got a lot of pressure with the ends playing inside," defensive end Kevin Carter said. "We figured 80 percent of the time they weren't going to run on it. When you have four ends in a game, it causes confusion. We have four guys who can really run with the exception of me. Plus, they like to get the ball short to Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, and we have guys who can run and run downfield."
The Steelers finished with 69 yards rushing on 25 attempts. The game turned completely before the half when a pressured Maddox threw a pass that was intercepted by cornerback Samari Rolle, who returned to the Steelers 1. McNair hit Erron Kinney for a 1-yard touchdown, and the Titans led 16-13 at the half.
"On most Sundays, you don't run the football on our defense nor do you run the football against their defense," Fisher said. "There's going to be Sundays where you can do it. By and large, both defenses know how to stop the run."
The final blow for the Steelers came in the third quarter. Maddox drove the Steelers from their 33 to the Titans 12. Jeff Reed came onto the field to attempt a 30-yard field goal. But safety Tank Williams rushed cleanly into the middle and got a hand on the kick. The Titans still led 16-13, and the Steelers were completely deflated.
"After that missed field goal, you could sense they had had it," Schulters aid. "That was it."
The Titans learned something from their Week 2 loss to the Colts. They got behind in that game and lost the battle of ball possession. This Sunday, instead of panicking, the Titans stayed patient and took advantage of key opportunities.
McNair threw only 16 passes. He completed 15, three for touchdowns. Boiman wasn't in the starting lineup at linebacker, but he directly led to nine points with a safety and a 60-yard interception return.
Possessing the ball is one thing, but it doesn't work if you don't score the touchdowns with it.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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