Defensive effort was titanic
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The great Chris Johnson, who ran for a ridiculous 2,006 yards last season? "Gave up," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said.
The elusive Vince Young, who was 9-2 as a starting quarterback going back to last season? "Rattled," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said.
The formidable Tennessee Titans, who routinely used to beat the Steelers like a drum here? "I thought that we were a little bit better than that," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.
Who saw this 19-11 beat-down coming Sunday? Who dared to dream the Steelers would be 2-0 without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger? Who knew the Steelers' defense was this sturdy? Who imagined that defensive end Aaron Smith and safety Troy Polamalu would make that much difference?
OK, that last question is silly. Everybody knows what Smith and Polamalu mean to the Steelers' defense. "You lose one, maybe, but not both at the same time," Ward said, referring to the team's rotten predicament last season when Smith and Polamalu were out with injuries and the defense blew five fourth-quarter leads.
But those first three questions are fair. The defense has been surprisingly terrific. "There's been a lot of talk that we're too old and that they need to put in new guys to start over," Keisel said, fairly sniffing. The defense -- aging or otherwise -- is responsible for the 2-0 start. On a late-summer Sunday, when the Steelers started with third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon and finished with fourth-teamer Charlie Batch and the team played without offensive tackle Max Starks and had to rotate in its seventh and eighth offensive linemen to beat the brutal heat and humidity, the defense forced six turnovers. It didn't give up its first touchdown of the season until the game's final minute. Clearly, it was too much for Johnson, who was held to 34 yards after running for at least 100 in 12 consecutive games, and Young, who played miserably and often seemed confused before being benched for Kerry Collins early in the fourth quarter.
"Every quarterback is going to look confused against [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau's defense," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said.
It looked as if Young didn't see Polamalu when he threw him an interception in the end zone on a first-and-10 play from the Steelers' 16 late in the first quarter. That play -- Polamalu's second interception in two games -- might have been the biggest defensive play of the game because the Steelers led just 7-3 at the time. It appeared as if Young didn't see linebacker LaMarr Woodley on another interception in the second quarter. Then, late in the third quarter, on the final play before he was benched, Young didn't seem to feel linebacker James Harrison coming on the rush and fumbled when he was hit.
"They did some things that I haven't seen before," Young said.
Johnson probably felt the same way. He ran for 142 yards against the Oakland Raiders a week earlier and looked ready to take another step toward Hall of Famer Barry Sanders' NFL record of 14 consecutive 100-yard games. But, no. Johnson didn't just average 2.1 yards on his 16 carries, he lost a fumble late in the first half after being hit by linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
"He got tired of being hit," Ward said.
"We sure did put the helmet on him," Foote agreed.
Johnson did have an apparent 85-yard touchdown run called back late in the second quarter when center Eugene Amano was penalized for holding Steelers nose tackle Chris Hoke. "Absolutely, it was holding," Hoke said. Added Smith, "They hold every play."
Give Smith a lot of the credit for stopping Johnson. The two most recent times the Steelers' defense allowed a back to run for 100 yards -- Baltimore's Ray Rice last season and Jacksonville's Fred Taylor in 2007 -- Smith didn't play because of injuries. Coincidence? There's just no way.
"Aaron created havoc all day," Ward said.
"He's amazing," Harrison said. "They have to account for him and it takes two guys to do it. That's 700 pounds of force coming down on him and they still can't block him. He gives us linebackers freedom to run around and make plays."
And man, they make 'em, don't they?
Harrison was a monster again with 11 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. The linebackers as a group -- Harrison, Woodley, Timmons and captain James Farrior -- combined for 34 tackles, 3 sacks, an interception, 3 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
It seems almost comical now that the Steelers' defense had to answer questions all week about how it was going to stop Johnson and contain Young.
"I feel like we're not getting the respect that we deserve," Harrison said. "But I understand respect is something that's not just given, it has to be earned. I like to think we earned a little today."
A bunch, actually.
First Published September 20, 2010 12:00 am