Monday, October 10, 2011

Week 5: Steelers 38, Titans 17

New faces

Daniel Sepulveda. Ryan Mundy. Jonathan Dwyer. David Johnson.

Not exactly the Steelers' Mount Rushmore.

But this quartet played a big role in chiseling out the Steelers' 38-17 win over the Titans Sunday at Heinz Field. These guys pretty much turned a 7-3 game into a 21-3 game, helping to slow down the run on ulcer medication in Western Pennsylvania this week.

The Steelers led 7-3 early in the second quarter and were about to punt from the 50. Instead, Sepulveda threw the ball to Mundy, a backup safety, for a 33-yard gain. Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward for a 14-3 lead.

Ward, who caught two TD passes Sunday, needs 26 receptions to become the eighth player all-time with 1,000. 

Johnson reached the 10-catch milestone for his career later in the second quarter when he hauled in a 1-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger to give the Steelers a 21-3 lead. It was the first career touchdown for the blocking tight end. Dwyer set that up with a 76-yard run to the Titans' 14. 

With guys like Dwyer and Isaac Redman getting carries in summer-like weather, this might have seemed like a preseason game. But thankfully, this win counts. It was the Steelers' third victory of the season, and the first without a "yeah, but" element to it.

Guys who fight for their jobs in August answered the call Sunday because of injuries that, curiously, seem to be just what the doctor ordered in the Steelers' problem areas.

The Steelers haven't been able to run the ball this season. Then Rashard Mendenhall gets hurt and they ground and pound their way to 174 yards on 28 carries. Dwyer ended up with 107 yards on 11 carries despite not getting the start. Redman started and had 49 yards on 15 carries. That's just over three yards a carry, which is less than impressive, but he just seemed harder to take down than Mendenhall has been.

Mendenhall was in uniform Sunday. He stood on the sideline with his helmet off, looking like a restless kid in church. Do the Steelers now have a running back controversy? My guess is Mendenhall gets his job back when he's healthy. Hopefully seeing that the Steelers can run the ball without him is the jolt he needs.

Another reason the Steelers were a .500 ballclub entering Sunday's game was their inability to stop the run. Then Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton go down, and look what happens, they stopped the run.

Sunday brunches turned around and made their way up the esophagus of many a Steelers fan when Titans' running back Chris Johnson gained 21 yards on the game's first play from scrimmage. But that was as bad as it got. Johnson had just 51 yards for the day, 34 of them on that first drive. Chris Hoke filled in well at nose tackle and Brett Keisel returned to the defensive line after being hurt for a couple of games. And a lot of bacon, eggs and pancakes resumed their normal digestive process.

Speaking of digestive systems that get a lot of action, tell me again why Max Starks hasn't been at left tackle all season?

OK, so Starks might have put on enough pounds to have his own TV show, The 400 Club. He was cut during the preseason but signed out of desperation this week. Even with a spare truck tire around his waist, it seems the Steelers could have used him for the first four games.

Roethlisberger was sacked 14 times in those games, but was sacked just once Sunday despite moving around like his left foot was in a bucket. Could Starks rescue the O-Line the same way Flozell Adams did last season? Better yet, let's start Adams on the Max Starks Diet and get him back at right tackle.

The offensive line helped pave the way Sunday for just the second five-touchdown game of Roethlisberger's career. The last of those touchdowns was a 40-yard connection to Mike Wallace that made it 38-17 with less than three minutes left in the game. One of the few weapons the Steelers have been able to count on this season is a bomb to Wallace. The speedy receiver has caught a pass of 40 yards or more in four straight games, and the Steelers needed his touchdown Sunday to quiet rumblings of a Titans comeback.

The Titans recovered an onside kick late in the third quarter after pulling to within 28-10. Then LaMarr Woodley, who decided that Sunday would be a good time to start earning his money, immediately intercepted a Matt Hasselbeck pass to squash any momentum from the onside kick. Woodley also had a sack in the game and shared another sack.

While that takeaway couldn't have come at a better time, it was the only one forced by the Steelers Sunday. The defense still has forced just two this season, but somehow the Steelers are 3-2.

There's always a chance the aging Steelers' defense paralleled the weather Sunday and experienced an Indian summer phenomenon. Maybe it was one of those "that old dog can still hunt" kind of days. But they've allowed 89 points through five games. The only other team that's played five games and allowed fewer points is the 49ers with 78. So this Steelers defense has to be doing something right.

Let's not forget, too, that three of the Steelers' first four games were on the road. Now, three of their next four are at home. Their next two games, home to Jacksonville and at Arizona, are against 1-4 teams. Hopefully the Steelers can ace those pop quizzes and bone up for mid-term exams at home against the Patriots (Oct. 31) and Baltimore (Nov. 6).

Wins in those two games might have a way of making the Steelers seem a few years younger.

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