Mike Munchak entered the offseason with a very specific idea of what he needed from the Tennessee Titans if his team was serious about getting back into contention in the AFC.
The coach, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, needed the Titans to be tough. He needed them to be relentless. He needed them to not be intimidated.
Check. Check. Check.
Buoyed by a persistent running game and an invigorated defense, the Titans smothered the Pittsburgh Steelers 16-9 on Sunday in the kind of performance sure to open a lot of eyes. The ones in the Tennessee locker room included.
"We said it only counts as one win, but it's a sweet win," Munchak said. "It is a great start for us to start 1-0 in a game that a lot of people thought would be the other way."
Hardly. Tennessee limited the Steelers to 195 total yards, sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times and forced two turnovers. Not quite the start Pittsburgh was looking for in what it hopes will be a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs last year.
"Not good enough, point blank," Roethlisberger said. "No excuses. I don't make excuses. It just wasn't good enough."
Here are five things we know after Tennessee ended Pittsburgh's 10-game winning streak in home openers.
1. THE STEELERS ARE HURTING. Pittsburgh pointed to the health of its young and retooled offensive line as one of the keys to its season. That health lasted less than 10 minutes. Three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is out for the year after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee in the first quarter. Pouncey was blocking when teammate David DeCastro fell on top of him, leaving the unit without its unquestioned leader.
"It's going to be tough," running back Isaac Redman said. "Pouncey is the heart of our offensive line. To lose him, we're going to have guys step up and we're all going to have to play better."
Pittsburgh linebacker Larry Foote is also done for the year after rupturing his right biceps while running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, cornerback Cortez Allen and kicker Shaun Suisham were also dinged up.
2. TENNESSEE CAN GRIND. The Titans needed 42 carries to muster 112 yards rushing. What they lacked in flash they made up for in ferocity. Tennessee kept plowing forward 2 to 3 yards at a time, controlling the clock and wearing down Pittsburgh's defense. The Titans ran it on 11 of the 12 plays in a 49-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter that gave them the lead for good.
"We went back to try to get back to Titans' football," Tennessee offensive tackle Michael Roos said.
3. GREGG WILLIAMS STILL HAS IT. The longtime defensive guru is back in the league after serving a suspension following his role in the bounty scandal that rocked the New Orleans Saints. While Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray remains very much in charge of the play calling, Williams has infused the unit with the same kind of relentless aggression that has become his trademark.
The Titans never allowed Roethlisberger to get comfortable and held the Steelers to just 32 yards rushing.
"We're working much more together now," defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said. "Nobody's pointing fingers at anybody else, and nobody's being selfish. We have to work as a unit, and that's what we did."
4. DARIUS REYNAUD NEEDS A REFRESHER. The Tennessee kick returner got a season's worth of mental miscues out of the way in the first 3 seconds of the game.
Reynaud fielded the opening kickoff from Suisham just outside the Tennessee goal line and shuffled back a few inches to down the ball in the end zone, believing it was a touchback. One problem, the ball never got that deep. Officials eventually ruled the play a safety, giving the Steelers an early 2-0 lead and Reynaud a place on the lowlight reel.
"I know I was in the end zone," Reynaud said. "I did not know where the ball was. That's something I need to work on."
5. THE STEELERS HAVE NO RUNNING GAME. Pittsburgh introduced a zone blocking scheme in the offseason hoping it would help bolster a running game that ranked near the bottom of the league in 2012.
The early returns were not promising. Stephens-Howling led Pittsburgh with 19 yards rushing and the Steelers didn't have a run longer than 8 yards all day. Even worse, Redman fumbled twice, including one into the Tennessee end zone in the first quarter.
"It's unacceptable," Redman said. "It wasn't a guy hitting, more the ball coming out. It was something we work on every single day in practice."
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