Ward head rolls into the endzone after leaping over a Titan defender for his 2nd touchdown of the day. Courtesy of nfl.com

MAXimum Protection: Steelers Win Big vs Titans as Starks Returns to Offensive Line


It was a beautiful day in the ‘Burgh at Heinz Field, and it was an even more beautiful win for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Titans.  The team had much to prove on both sides of the ball today, and each performed well beyond what most had anticipated based on the performance from the first four weeks of the season.  But, I don’t think anyone could have predicted that the addition of Max Starks would have as big an impact as it did Sunday afternoon.

Things looked shaky for the Steelers D right off the bat as they let the Titans drive 60+ yards on their first drive.  A bunch of Steelers’ penalties kept the drive alive and got the Titans inside the 10 yard line.  The D stood tall thanks to Woodley finally stepping up in the clutch, however, and the Titans settled for a field goal.  And, for the most part the Steelers never looked back.

The offense clicked right from the start on their first drive and continued to do so throughout the whole game.  Ben Roethlisberger with the help of an offensive line that looked like they were from an entirely different team (a team that could block well) orchestrated an opening drive that ended in a TD pass to big Heath Miller.  Rashard Mendenhall was out all game with his hamstring injury (even though he dressed), but Isaac Redman and rookie Jonathan Dwyer stepped up and helped the Steelers gain a total of 174 yards on the ground.  Dwyer in his first game in the NFL ran for 107 yards on 11 rushes – 76 of which gained on a run while the offense was deep in its own territory.  The one two punch of Redman and Dwyer combined for 156 yards and brought back glimmers of a Jerome Bettis style of running – hit the hole hard and don’t stop moving your legs until you are completely on the ground.  It was a warming site.

But the talk of the afternoon and game ball goes to the offensive line and their pass blocking – especially to none other than Max Starks.  The entire week there was speculation about Max Starks, how much he would play, how effective he would be.  It had been 11 months since Starks played a snap.  He weight ballooned after his neck injury, and he was released from the Steelers prior to training camp.  It was a surprising move for teammates.  Even Big Ben wore a #78 in honor of Starks after he was released.

I ran a poll earlier in the week where 59% of those who voted felt that Starks would at least keep Big Ben from getting killed.  Well he performed well beyond that by shutting down whatever Tennessee threw his way.  Starks was not expected to play all game because of his conditioning.  Jonathan Scott was available to spell him if need be.  But, Starks played every snap.  After Marcus Gilbert injured his shoulder late in the 2nd quarter, Starks really had no choice as the bench was thinned out once again.  Even with Scott subbing in for Gilbert the offensive line held their ground on passing plays and gave Roethlisberger enough time to complete 24 out of 34 (70%) – 5 for touchdowns.  Indeed Arains mixed up the offense enough with plenty of short routes and screens, but Roethlisberger was rarely rushed and only sacked once.  That’s right, I said one sack.  Through 4 weeks, the line had given up 14, and now turned things around only giving up one this week.  The line gave Ben enough protection that he was able to perform a play action with a 5 step drop that connected deep to Mike Wallace for a touchdown sealing the win.  At one moment (I believe after Ward’s 2nd TD) Roethlisberger gave Starks a bro to bro hug that said, “Sweet Jesus, thank God you’re back!”  Hell I wanted to give the guy a hug.

The defense played also played well.  Until late in the 4th, the Steelers had essentially shut down most of the Titans offense.  They held Chris Johnson for under 60 yards and only gave up 66 yards total – a big difference from Arain Foster’s field day last week.  The secondary also continued it’s ‘shutdown’ type play.  Hasselbeck garnered 262 yards in passing, but again, most of that came late in the 4th when the team was in desperation mode using 4 and 5 wide sets and going for it numerous times on 4th down.  This biggest mistake came from Keenan Lewis late in the 4th.  He did not stick with his man well enough on the route and allowed an easy pass get by for a touchdown.  Forgiving when the team is up over 20 points late in the game, but disturbing if at another point in the game.

The Steelers D recorded their first interception on a great concentration effort from LaMarr Woodley as he came down with a high tipped pass.  Woodley also recorded 1.5 sacks – a big sack that came in the first drive that kept the Titans from scoring a touchdown.  Cameron Heyward got his first regular season sack as a rookie, which caused Hasselbeck to ground the ball intentionally.

All in all, this was a solid game played by the Steelers.  This does not completely chase away the demons of doubt… well from me at least.  But this game was a huge step in the right direction.  The Titans were on a streak winning their last 3, and the Steelers slapped them in the mouth with their hard running and aggressive defense.  Eyes will be on Marcus Gilbert this week as he recovers from his ailing shoulder.  Questions will also now be raised about who will be starting at running back against the Jags next week.  It’s clear that Redman and Dwyer can run behind this offensive line and were more effective in this game than Mendenhall has been all season.  Will Tomlin stick with ‘his man’ or allow Redman and Dwyer to continue to be a shot in the arm for this running game.  Stay tuned.  Tomlin’s presser should be interesting.

But for now, bask in the glory of a good win.  GO STEELERS!

Tags: Ben Roethlisberger Hines Ward Isaac Redman Jonathan Dwyer Max Starks Mike Tomlin