Steelers pay price with injuries as their road woes continue
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ben Roethlisberger broke one of the Steelers' oldest-standing records. With a lineup that was patched together from series to series, Roethlisberger and his teammates couldn't break from one of their newest traditions.
They lost yet another road game they were expected to win easily — their fourth straight loss away from home and fifth in sixth games — as Rob Bironas kicked a 40-yard field goal on the final play to give the Tennessee Titans a 26-23 upset win Thursday night at LP Field.
"We're not making plays when we need to," Roethlisberger said. "We don't make excuses. ... It stinks. It's not good. We've got to get better."
Roethlisberger, who dodged and ducked pass rushers all night after offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert went down with leg injuries, went 24 of 40 for 363 yards to surpass Terry Bradshaw's career passing record of 27,989 yards. Roethlisberger came in with 27,703 yards and now has 28,066.
The Steelers (2-3) had a punt blocked, lost two starting offensive linemen and two running backs to injuries, and they fell behind 16-10 to a Titans team that is allowing points at what is nearly an all-time record rate.
One more injury, and they might have had to use Casey Hampton as a running back.
Pouncey injured an MCL, although several teammates said they don't believe the injury is serious, and Gilbert (ankle), running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle), and linebacker Brandon Johnson (hamstring) also were hurt. Right guard Ramon Foster (right leg) and safety Ryan Clark (hip pointer) returned after getting hurt.
"I've been through games like that," left guard Willie Colon said. "Thank God there's no season-ending things."
Amid the injuries and the lineup upheaval, Roethlisberger converted on third-and-long three times during a go-ahead, 80-yard drive that ended with Baron Batch's 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
But even after they came back to lead 23-16, the Steelers gave up the final 10 points in a loss nearly identical to that of their 34-31 setback to the Raiders three weeks ago when they led by 10 points late.
This time, Shaun Suisham kicked three field goals, the last a 52-yarder, but also missed a 54-yarder that gave the Titans a short field on their decisive field goal drive. Matt Hasselbeck's 25-yard throw to tight end Jared Cook was the key play of the drive. Cook lined up next to the left tackle, cut across the line of scrimmage and wasn't picked up until he had made the catch.
"We've got to win those games — especially games when we feel like we should win," receiver Mike Wallace said. "We got to put them away. We gave them too many chances and they made plays at the time and we didn't."
The Steelers' past three games have been decided by last-play field goals, and they have lost two of them.
"We're 2-3, and we've not accomplished anything," linebacker Larry Foote said. "We're off to a rocky start."
The Titans came in 1-4 and was the first NFL team in 58 years to allow 30 points or more in its first five games.
"Maybe that's the problem," Foote said. "Maybe mentally that's how we're looking at these games (as easy wins) right now."
Redman exited after he was 11 yards away from breaking Frenchy Fuqua's modern-era team record of 116 yards receiving by a running back in a game, set in 1970. He wasn't in any boot or wrap after the game, and neither was Mendenhall.
"I've never had a 100-yard receiving game (at any level)," Redman said.
A big chunk of Roethlisberger's yardage came on his 82-yard touchdown hookup with Wallace in the first quarter that pushed the Steelers into a 10-3 lead. Roethlisberger and Wallace hooked up for the 24th time on a completion of 40 yards or longer.
"Congratulations to him for the record," Wallace said. "He knows it really doesn't matter right now because we didn't get the win. It's not about personal records. It's not about personal stats. It's about winning ballgames."
But after the Wallace big-play score, Tim Shaw broke up the middle unimpeded — Ryan Mundy apparently missed a block — to block a Drew Butler punt with Jason McCourty recovering at the 1, and Jamie Harper scored one play later for Tennessee's first rushing touchdown this season, making it 13-10.
Shaw also blocked a Daniel Sepulveda punt last season in Pittsburgh, not that it mattered in a 38-17 Steelers win.
After Bironas added a 47-yarder, Suisham sliced it to 16-13 with a 28-yarder, and Roethlisberger then patched together the best Steelers drive of the game, one kept going by his 17-yard completion to Heath Miller on a third-and-10, and Batch scored with 13:34 remaining.
But just when it looked like the Titans would return to the form that has seen them lose by margins of 21, 28, 24 and 23 points, Matt Hasselbeck steered them on an 80-yard, 11-play drive finished off by his 5-yard touchdown throw to Kenny Britt with 4:19 remaining that tied it at 23.
Hasselbeck — filling in for the injured Jake Locker — repeatedly had success targeting cornerback Ike Taylor in coverage, finished 25 of 44 for 290 yards, one touchdown and one interception as the Titans converted on 9 of 16 third downs.
Chris Johnson, held to 25 yards or fewer four times this season, had 91 yards on 19 carries, the most he's had against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers drove inside the Titans' 40 in the final minute, but Suisham missed for the first time in 12 attempts, a 54-yarder that was a few yards short. Coach Mike Tomlin allowed him to kick from that range because he had made a 52-yarder earlier.
"I've got to complete one more pass there to make it easier for him," Roethlisberger said.
Right now the Steelers aren't making it easy on themselves at all. Not even against the easy teams that suddenly have become very hard to beat.