Titans tear down 'steel curtain'

Swarming D (Small)

Steve McNair, Eddie George and the rest of the Titans offense got their punch back yesterday and the defense also came to play, as they recovered from a first-play 72-yard touchdown by the Steelers, to inflict a 31-23 shellacking on their former rival.

Photo by Charles Small
Eddie George had 79 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries against the Steelers.

The Tennessee Titans arrived one play late at the start, but other than that, had perfect timing in upending the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-23 at The Coliseum Sunday.

The victory improved the Titans to 6-4 overall. The Steelers fell to 5-4-1, but their bigger concern was the condition of quarterback Tommy Maddox who had to be transported off the field by ambulance to the Baptist Hospital Trauma Unit after a hit on the final play of the third quarter.

After the first 15 seconds of play, it certainly didn't look like the Titans' day as Maddox cranked up a 72-yard touchdown throw to Hines Ward, who had gotten a good 10 yards behind Andre Dyson on a stop-and-go pattern on the first play from scrimmage.

But as a certain former 1-4 team now on a five-game winning streak will tell you, you just have to keep fighting through the adversity. "Nobody really worried about it," cornerback Samari Rolle said of Pittsburgh's early touchdown. "'Dre was mad about it, but as far as that, it was one play. You've got to keep playing, and that's what we did."

And on Sunday, for most of the remaining 59:45 to play, the Titans played and played well. How well? The Titans defense smothered Pittsburgh's running game, holding it to 45 yards, and harassed Maddox into three interceptions on the way to building a 31-7 lead.

And while the defense was holding Pittsburgh's potent offense in check, the Titans own offense was shaking off the doldrums of a two-game slump to rack up 378 yards, convert 12 of 19 third downs, and completely befuddle the Steelers with their play-calling.

What it added up to – despite two garbage-time TDs and two-point conversions by Pittsburgh with Tennessee in the prevent – was maybe the Titans' best showing of the year.

"We expected to win," said Rolle, who won his celebrated rematch with Pittsburgh receiver Plaxico Burress, whom he limited to four catches for 41 yards. "With Pittsburgh, we were going to get their best, and they got our best. It's good to know where we came from, from 1-4 to 6-4 now. So now we just have to find ways to improve."

The game might have turned on Pittsburgh's second possession when, in zone coverage on third-and-9, linebacker Peter Sirmon picked off a Maddox pass and returned it 25 yards to the 1.

From there, the Titans began their game plan of keeping the Steelers off balance, faking the run and having Steve McNair throw to Kevin Dyson for the tying touchdown.

"We did different things, trying to mix them up," said Dyson, who counted two TDs among his eight catches for 87 yards. "We kept them off-balance. We had kind of been lacking last week. Today, we didn't leave points hanging out there. We couldn't afford to play offense like we'd been playing the last couple of weeks."

And they didn't, cashing in on four of five red zone chances with touchdowns.

"We wanted to keep them off balance, and that's why we were so productive offensively, especially on third down," said McNair, who finished 18 of 33 for 257 yards.

One of those third down conversions came in the second period, when Eddie George ran 4 yards for the go-ahead touchdown after incomplete passes on the first two downs.

The Titans continued to pad their lead in the third period, first turning a Donald Mitchell interception into a 9-yard TD from McNair to Dyson, then getting George's 5-yard TD run, set up by McNair's 55-yard pass completion to Justin McCareins, setting up a first-and-goal situation.

Tennessee tacked on 43-yard field goal by Joe Nedney, who had earlier missed a 39-yarder, then held on as Kordell Stewart made it close against the Titans' prevent defense in the final four minutes.

And though the final score was closer than play indicated, it did not take away from what the Titans accomplished. The offense snapped out of its two-game funk, and the defense, gaining confidence by the week, turned in a third straight strong performance.

"Each game our confidence is getting better," said safety Lance Schulters. "We're getting to the point where it doesn't matter what the offense does. We're feeling good about ourselves and getting that swagger about ourselves right now."

But as defensive tackle John Thornton said, the Titans, having known from whence they came, aren't getting too cocky. They're just playing solid football.

"The biggest thing is we're just going out there and playing. Ain't nobody talking about the winning streak," he said. "It's kind of like it was in 2000 when we won eight straight and you really didn't know it. We just kept playing and kept winning."

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