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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Johnson: Titans flex their muscles

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cornerback Cortland Finnegan makes Steelers receiver Hines Ward (86) pay for a reception in traffic.
(T-G Photo by Danny Parker)
NASHVILLE -- Mission accomplished….just for now.

With Tennessee's 34-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday afternoon, the Titans earned the No. 1 seed and home field advantage in the upcoming AFC Playoffs.

They also have an opening round bye into the playoffs by winning the AFC South.

The Titans (13-2) close out the regular season in a meaningless game at Indianapolis Sunday. Don't expect much from either team in that game. Other than another mark in the win column and pride, the game means absolutely nothing when it comes to the playoffs.

After each home game I attempt to come up with a specific storyline that developed in the game for my Point by Point column.

This season I've written about the emergence of rookie sensation Chris Johnson, the impact of quarterback Kerry Collins once he was named the starter, how the balance of power is shifting atop the AFC South, and the dominating defense the Titans have, just to name a few.

After Tennessee's win over Pittsburgh, I found it hard to limit this column to just one aspect of the game….so I won't.

Linebacker Keith Bulluck celebrates a big play by the Titans defense.
(T-G Photo by Danny Parker)
Home advantage

First, with the win, AFC opponents will have to come through Nashville in order to advance to the Super Bowl in Tampa, as long as the Titans win.

Tennessee has only hosted thee playoff games, defeating Buffalo 22-16 with the "Music City Miracle" in 1999; losing to Baltimore 24-10 in 2000; and claiming a 34-31 overtime win over Pittsburgh in 2002.

What a great opportunity for Titans fans to be a part of a completely different atmosphere compared to the regular season.

In postgame interviews, coach Jeff Fisher and a number of key players looked at this game as a chance to gain a little momentum going into the playoffs, especially after losing a couple of games in the second half of the season.

"The message to the team this week was this was a momentum game for us," Fisher said. "We needed to build momentum for the playoffs. By winning and playing well, the bonus is the second (playoff) game here at home."

David Thornton and Nick Harper (20) bring down Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker.
(T-G Photo by Danny Parker)
By the way, that "second" game at home would be the AFC championship game.

Titan linebacker Keith Bulluck also is excited about the opportunity of not having to pack his luggage for the playoffs but also kept things in prospective.

"The best feeling is coming out here and getting this win. The last four games, I think we split 2-2, and with Pittsburgh coming in here with the best defense, the best football team in the National Football League, it was good for us come out here and flex a little bit, show what this Titans team is all about and what it's gonna be about when the playoffs start," Bulluck said.

"The AFC playoffs come through Nashville and for our team, defense actually, the good thing, is that we played great today and the better thing is we get Kyle (Vanden Bosch) and Albert (Haynesworth) back next time."

'D' comes through

That brings up my second point: How was the Titan defense going to play with both Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch out with injuries?

The Titan 'D' answered the challenge with astounding results.

Safety Michal Griffin shrugs off a weak attempt at a tackle by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
(T-G Photo by Danny Parker)
Tennessee defense caused Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to fumble the ball five times, losing two of them, to go along with a pair of interceptions by free safety Michael Griffin, including one for a touchdown.

Rookie Jason Jones, who started in place of Haynesworth, had the game of his short career against the Steelers. The second-round pick out of Eastern Michigan picked up 3.5 sacks and forced three fumbles.

"Our backup defensive linemen, Jason Jones and the effort we got out of that group was nothing less than spectacular. I was very, very pleased and proud of them," Fisher said. "Coming into this game without Albert and Kyle there was some concern, but all along we felt like we had guys that had the opportunity to play and made plays for us and they really stepped up."

The Titan defense has shined all year and has allowed 14 points or less in 11 of their 15 games this season.

Offense shines

Tennessee running back Chris Johnson cruises into the end zone.
(T-G Photo by Danny Parker)
As good as the defense has played, Tennessee's offense has not been clicking on all cylinders of late.

That was not the case against Pittsburgh as the Titans were the first team this season to gain over 300 yards on the Steelers defense.

They also turned those four Steelers turnovers into 21 points.

"I think a lot of the credit goes to the coaches," Collins said. "We came in with a great game plan. The offensive line did a tremendous job, both in run and pass blocking. As a result, we were able to make plays. The defense got turnovers for us and we were able to capitalize. I thought overall it was a great team effort."

Gary Johnson is a Times-Gazette sports writer. He can be reached at gjohnson@t-g.com.

Gary Johnson
Point by Point