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You have to hand it to the NFL; they know how to put on a show. The NFL Kickoff Special had it all: fireworks, huge musical acts, and a hard fought, old-fashioned game of football.
The Steelers and Titans duked it out in what was a battle of the defenses. There were four Titans sacks, touchdowns separated by less then a minute, Troy Polamalu leaving with an injured MCL, blocked field goals, a goal line fumble which put the game into overtime and almost a 100-yard interception returned to the house. Eventually, Pittsburgh beat Tennesse 13-10.
However, it was more then just a game. The National Football League has turned it’s opening weekend into an all out extravaganza. It was a celebration for the game and a hell of a way to start the 2009 NFL season.
Here are ten things learned from Thursday’s events:
Santonio Holmes has a new accomplishment. He scored the final points of last season and the first points of the new one. With the Steelers moving into a two-minute offense, Santonio caught two deep balls including a 34 yards touchdown pass through the heart of the Tennessee defense. He was all over the field and making great plays left and right.
On the other hand was former MVP Hines Ward, who despite racking up 103 receiving yards, he was not Big Ben’s go-to guy. Included in that was a crucial play in the fourth quarter. With time winding down, a pass through the middle was hauled in by Ward. Instead of falling within the 20, he went for the home run and in the process, was stripped and fumbled the ball. It could have sealed the game for Pittsburgh, but Ward was looking for a play to take the focus off new sensation Holmes.
No one has given the Titans a chance to succeed this year after having the league’s best record the last time around. With Indianapolis the hands on favorite and people picking the Texans to be a sleeper, the Titans have been expected to finish with a mediocre 8-8 record and miss the playoffs.
However, do not count Jeff Fisher’s squad. They are disciplined and Kerry Collins looked just as good as last year, if that’s a good thing. Include a fantastic running combination of Chris Johnson and LenDale White and their offense is good enough for another strong season.
Considering that they play the AFC East, which has weak teams other than the Patriots, and the NFC West, which is horrible all around, the Titans could easily run the table with those teams. Winning half their division games puts them around, or over, 10 wins. However, considering that last year the Pats were 11-5 and didn’t make the playoffs, the Titans could be good without playing in January.
The Peas started the kickoff with their new release “I Gotta Feeling” and it has become clear that this song will be played to death by the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, Youth Hockey, Professional Racquetball League, etc. It will probably replace Phil Collin’s “In the Air Tonight” as the song you don’t know why they continue to play at stadiums. It’s catchy and if you close your eyes, you can see highlights being aired with this song in the background.
During the first half, and without doubt, Polamalu was the game’s MVP. He was running ten yards out to stop runs at the line of scrimmage. He made a one handed interception while falling backwards. He had six tackles, all solo, and they were all over the field. He was covering ground like no one else and delivering painful hit after painful hit. Then with the second quarter waning, the Steelers blocked a field goal. Attempting to recover the ball was Polamalu, who ended up being crushed by a Titans player, spraining his MCL. The injury could have him out for three to six weeks and that could hurt the Steelers hard.
On the Titans next drive, Kerry Collins made three throws: a wide open Kenny Britt drop, another play Britt hauled in and went 57 yards, and a Justin Gage touchdown. Pittsburgh’s secondary was picked apart and they desperately missed Polamalu. The Steelers will have to step up to make sure the next three quarterbacks, Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers, don’t have monster games.
Haynesworth left for D.C. with a monster contract and left Tennessee with some questions. Who will replace him? How will they get pressure on quarterbacks? All questions were answered on Thursday. Jason Jones, who replaced an injured Haynesworth last season, had a great game putting pressure on the Pittsburgh offense. Along with Tony Brown, Tennessee now has two guys to play the line and get to a quarterback.
Several times the Steelers had third and short and every time they were stopped. Kyle Vanden Bosch and Javon “Freak” Kearse anchored the line in only allowing 36 rushing yards. The team combined for four sacks, including a monster free shot to Roethlisberger courtesy of Kearse. During the offseason people were critical of the Titans D, now it appears that heads will turn.
Some love him, some love to hate him, but in the end he is one of the top quarterbacks in the league. With all the offseason talk on Tom Brady, Thursday’s game was Big Ben’s moment to shine. In the midst of a sexual assault accusation, Roethlisberger put all his troubles aside and stepped up his game. With a running game going nowhere, Big Ben threw for 363 yards on 33-43 attempts. His clutch plays were outstanding and if not for a Hines Ward fumble, he could have led Pittsburgh to a game-ending drive. Instead, he did it in overtime.
There were a couple of faults that the Titans were able to take advantage of. Roethlisberger is one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the league, mainly due to him standing in the pocket too long and not throwing the ball away. When he tries to scramble, he tends to backtrack and gave up some large yardage losses in the process. He also tried to force balls where he shouldn’t. He was picked off twice for throwing a ball he shouldn’t have and one was returned 80 yards and almost taken to the house by Christian Finnegan.
By no means was I ever a Madden fan. My head hurt from some of his sayings. (He’s playing like a bologna sandwich, he’s just sitting there!) But gosh-darned-it he was great. You listened in case he said something stupid and loved when he drew all over the teleprompter, admit it. Putting him with Al Michaels, one of the greatest sports broadcasters of all time, was a stellar combination and made Sunday Night Football great.
Now, NBC put in Collinsworth. He is annoying, pompous, and not entertaining. He was a former Cincinnati Bengal during their short heyday, then part of the worst broadcast teams in recent memory, FOX’s ABC (Troy Aikman, Joe Buck, and Collinsworth). Wasn’t there someone else NBC could have replaced Madden with? Jerome Bettis? Tiki Barber? Dennis Miller? Ok, not really Miller, that didn’t work out too well. For now we’re stuck with Cris, but here’s hoping for another former coach that says ridiculous things to make his way to the booth. I’m talking to you, Ditka.
86 rushing yards is not a lot for a team in a game. However, considering that is against one of the best defensive units in football, that is a good showing. The running back tandem of Chris Johnson and LenDale White is a strong one-two punch; speed and power that can drop it on a team at moments notice. Johnson is one of the fastest guys in the league and was able to break through for a 32-yard run in this one, and he could have went longer if not for Polamalu. White is a bruiser who will be great on goal line and short yardage gains.
A year ago, many of the teams the Titans will play this season were allowing over 100 rushing yards a game. Considering the Colts, Texans, Bills and the entire NFC West are on the Titans schedule, expect a big dose of running coming from Tennessee. The running backs are the heart of this offense and both Johnson and White could be competing against each other for a trip to Hawaii this season.
Rob Bironas is one of the best kickers in the league. He is accurate and lethal as the range increases. Bironas makes 83 percent of his kicks and is as clutch as clutch comes. However, last night he was the difference between a Titans win and their eventual loss. On his first two attempts, Bironas shanked one and another was later blocked. Punter Craig Hentrich also hit a punt off the side of this foot in the final minutes of the fourth, giving the Steelers a great opportunity to win the game, before a Ward fumble.
For Bironas, his counterpart Jeff Reed was near perfect. Reed went 2-2 on his kicks, one being a game-tying kick with under three minutes remaining, and the other being an overtime game-winner. Pittsburgh punter Daniel Sepulveda also played his position perfectly, netting four punts inside the 20, including a few inside the five. In a game where kickers and punters get no respect, the Steelers made a difference with their feet.
There is no other league that can put on a spectacle quite like the NFL. You will never see the Black Eyed Peas and Tim McGraw opening the MLB season. There were fireworks from all over Pittsburgh; from the bridges to the rivers and the buildings, the entire city was encompassed by Steelers pride. Even with the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup, it is obvious the Pittsburgh is a football city, as is the case with other NFL hosting cities.
Baseball might be the pastime, but Football is the present. A half hour musical celebration kicked off the season; the second act was a great game featuring two teams that will be competing for that Super Bowl. Whoever wins the big game this year, it is clear that their Kickoff Celebration will up the ante. The season is now underway, and this was one way to kick it off.
Tags: Albert Haynesworth, Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Johnson, Craig Henirich, Hines Ward, Jason Jones, Javon Kearse, Jeff Fisher, Jeff Reed, Kerry Collins, Kyle Vanden Bosch, LenDale White, Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Rob Brionas, Santonio Holmes, Tennessee Titans, Tom Brady, Tony Brown, Troy Polamalu