PITTSBURGH -- Early mistakes on special teams hurt the Titans Sunday in Pittsburgh, enabling the Steelers to seize momentum and build an insurmountable lead.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes as the Steelers scored 28 unanswered points and defeated the Titans 38-17. Deception helped decide the game.
Antonio Brown fielded a kickoff, faked a handoff and returned the ball 52 yards to give Pittsburgh the ball at midfield on its opening possession. The Steelers capitalized on the advantageous field position and ended a 10-play drive with 9-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Heath Miller for a 7-3 lead with 3:00 left in the first quarter. They never trailed again.
Pittsburgh (3-2) extended its second possession with a fake punt that resulted in a 33-yard pass from Daniel Sepulveda to Ryan Mundy that moved the ball to the Tennessee 17-yard-line.
"When you see a play like that happen, you know someone made a mistake, Titans coach Mike Munchak said, "and we had a guy make a mistake on that play."
The trick play was the keystone of a nine-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Hines Ward.
"It was huge," linebacker Akeem Ayers said. "It was a chance for us to get off the field and get our offense the ball. After that, the momentum switched and they scored point after point."
Roethlisberger finished 24-for-34 passing for 228 yards. He was sacked once and threw one interception before halftime but completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace on his final pass attempt with 2:39 left in the game.
DEFENSE ALLOWS SEASON HIGHS: Tennessee's defense entered the game as the stingiest in the NFL, allowing just 14 points per game. The Titans hadn't allowed an opponent to score more than 16 and also had limited big plays until Sunday.
Munchak said the Titans had hoped to build an early lead quickly and force the Steelers to rely more on passing the football. Pittsburgh, however, had 35 pass attempts and 28 rush attempts, compared to 49 pass attempts and 18 rush attempts by the Titans (3-2).
"They were able to dictate what they wanted to do," Munchak said. "We never got them like other teams had, that they struggled with protection-wise when they had to throw the ball and became one-dimensional."
Pittsburgh reserve running back Jonathan Dwyer burst through the middle and bounced to the outside for a 76-yard run — his first carry this season — in the second quarter to set up the Steelers' third touchdown. It was the longest play allowed by the Titans this season, and the 40-yard completion from Roethlisberger to Wallace was the longest pass play allowed by the Titans this season.
Dwyer, a second-year pro who had nine carries for 28 yards in his rookie season, finished with career highs of 107 yards on 11 carries. Running back Isaac Redman, who started in place of injured Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore, added 49 yards on 15 carries. Brown had 10 yards on one carry, and Wallace added 8 yards on one rush attempt.
Pittsburgh averaged 6.2 yards per carry, which is the highest average against the Titans this season. Tennessee allowed 3.4 yards per rush attempt in its first four games.
"At the end of the day, we missed a lot of tackles," Shaun Smith said. "I can probably answer a little bit better (Monday after watching the film), but we missed a lot of tackles. They wanted it more than us (Sunday). We have to go back to the drawing board. We have a long two weeks ahead of us. It's a good thing that we have three straight games at home. Hopefully the '12th Man' can rally us and we can get to 6-and-2."
The previous longest run allowed by the Titans was 21 yards to Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew in Week 1.
RARE SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYS CAN'T LIFT TITANS: Tennessee executed a successful on-side kick and blocked a punt in the second half, but immediate miscues erased the impact of the rare plays.
Tennessee's Rob Bironas executed a high-bounce kickoff that Alterraun Verner recovered, giving the Titans the ball at the Pittsburgh 45-yard-line with 2:02 left in the third quarter. The Titans couldn't cut into the Steelers' 28-10 lead because Pittsburgh got the ball back one play later when LaMarr Woodley intercepted a ball thrown by Matt Hasselbeck that was batted into the air by Brett Keisel.
"Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way," Hasselbeck said. "It was a great catch by him. We had momentum because we just got an onside kick so that was huge, and they just stole the momentum right back."
The Titans also missed an opportunity to stage a comeback after a blocked punt in the fourth quarter. Tim Shaw, Tennessee's special teams captain, sprung through the line and blocked a punt by Daniel Sepulveda that Cortland Finnegan scooped up and returned 30 yards into the end zone, but Titans reserve running back Jamie Harper was called for a block in the back during the return that negated the score. It would have brought the Titans within 14 with 6:27 left. Tennessee instead received the ball at the Pittsburgh 37 and scored a touchdown with 3:32 left in the game.
THIRD-DOWN SUCCESS AND DIFFICULTY:Tennessee's offense converted seven of 15 third downs (48 percent) for its second-highest success rate of the season, but six of the conversions occurred in the fourth quarter after the Titans had fallen too far behind.
Tennessee received two new sets of downs after penalties against the Steelers on third downs during its opening drive that resulted in a 29-yard field goal by Rob Bironas, but went 0-for-4 on third downs in the first half.
"One of the two biggest things was probably not getting the touchdown on the first drive," Hasselbeck said. "That was an opportunity for us to accomplish our goal for the day, which was to start fast and get up early. The biggest thing was our third down production in the first half. We weren't on the field long enough, we didn't convert."
Pittsburgh converted 7 of 12 third downs (58 percent) of third downs, including four of six in the first half, against Tennessee. It was the highest success rate by an opponent against the Titans this season.
CJ FINDS END ZONE, LEAVES EARLY: Titans running back Chris Johnson scored his first touchdown of the season. Johnson wasn't touched as he ran in from 1 yard to make it 28-10 in the third quarter. Johnson gained 21 yards on the opening play of the game and finished with 51 yards on 14 carries before leaving early with tightness in his hamstring.
Munchak said Johnson was removed from the game as a precautionary measure for the rest of the season. The Titans have a bye next week before hosting Houston and didn't want the hamstring issue to become a severe problem, Munchak said.
"I kind of wanted to go back in the game," Johnson said, "but after meeting with the trainers and coaches and staff and stuff, since the game was really out of hand, they didn't want me to go back into the game and make anything worse."
CAREER HIGHS FOR WILLIAMS: Damian Williams set career highs with six catches for 66 yards and caught his second touchdown in as many weeks since replacing Kenny Britt (torn ACL, MCL). Williams caught a 19-yard pass from Hasselbeck in the fourth quarter. Hasselbeck completed 29 of 49 passes for 262 yards and was sacked three times.
Williams' previous career high was four catches for 48 yards against Jacksonville in October 2010.
FINNEGAN PICKS OFF PASS:Finnegan recorded his first interception of the season and 14th of his career late in the first half. With the Steelers driving into field-goal range, Finnegan alertly stepped and met a pass that Roethlisberger threw toward a cluster of receivers. The interception kept the score at 21-3 at the half.
ROOKIE NOTCHES SACK: Titans rookie defensive tackle Jurrell Casey recorded his first career sack when he dropped Roethlisberger for a loss of 4 in the third quarter, but it was the only time that Tennessee dropped the Steelers' QB behind the line of scrimmage Sunday.