No extra motivation needed today
September 19, 2010
Herald Standard

The Tennessee Titans have learned that you don't stomp on or blow your nose into a Terrible Towel.

They've also learned that you don't tug on Superman's cape - or stick a ball in his face on the way to the end zone.

Chris Johnson did that to Troy Polamalu in the second half of the famed 2008 "Terrible Towel" game, and Polamalu came back to pay for the offense last year.

In just one quarter, Polamalu put in a full game's worth of performance in stopping Johnson and the Titans. Polamalu, of course, was injured in the game and he and the Steelers spent much of the rest of the season recovering.

Polamalu doesn't like to talk about his brilliant opening quarter last year, but the quiet and the humble among the Steelers understood Polamalu's motivation.

"Troy doesn't say anything," said Aaron Smith. "So if you're messing with him, you're going out of your way."

Polamalu and the Steelers held Johnson to 57 yards on 15 carries in the 13-10 Steelers' overtime win at Heinz Field last year. That occurred after Johnson stuck the ball in Polamalu's face on his way to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown in the 31-14 drubbing.

Was Polamalu particularly motivated in 2009?

"I think we all were highly motivated for that game," said Smith. "We had gotten embarrassed the year before."

Smith was asked if, by his own definition, the Titans will in turn be the motivated party today in Nashville.

"I think we're both going to be motivated," he said. "It reminds me of when we used to be in the same division. When we were in the same division, we used to just beat on each other. That was a great division, wasn't it? I think even Cowher and their coach hated each other. I truly do."

The rivalry, in fact, reaches back beyond the Bill Cowher-Jeff Fisher years.

Back in the 1970s, Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips would often end a season by promising to kick the Pittsburgh door down the following season. There was also Donnie Shell's legendary rib-busting hit on Earl Campbell in a Monday night game; there was the wailing over Oilers WR Mike Renfro's near-catch in the end zone during an AFC Championship Game (of which NFL Films later showed the ball to be juggling in the receiver's hands as he stepped out of bounds); and there was even a two-year public sobfest from Oilers tight end Mike Barber over an inadvertent hit at the ankles by Mike Wagner. Barber publicly swore revenge before the next game, so Wagner approached him during pre-game, apologized, and then picked off two passes to win the game ball.

Good times.

"It's ironic that I have two former Steelers on my team," Fisher said of Patrick Bailey and Nate Washington, "and they remember more than my Titans do about the old days."

The new days are all about stopping Johnson, who's rushed for 100 yards in 12 straight games. The NFL record is 14 100-yard games by Barry Sanders.

The Steelers, meanwhile, have allowed only one 100-yard rusher - Ray Rice last December - in their last 39 games (counting playoffs). In fact, since Dick LeBeau returned as defensive coordinator in 2004, the Steelers have allowed only five 100-yard games. Stopping the run has been their game-by-game mantra under LeBeau.

"We have to tackle as a team," said Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley. "You stop the run and you force a team to go to its passing game, which will allow us to bring a little heat and get the quarterback's arm."

Sounds simple enough, but Titans quarterback Vince Young has the ability to escape the rush and throw to a solid array of receivers in Washington, Justin Gage, and tight end Bo Scaife.

Defensively, the Titans have a history of rotating no-name defensive linemen who stunt and twist their way to the quarterback. Defensive tackle Jason Jones has caused the most havoc the last two games with five sacks.

"They're pretty solid," Woodley said. "But they're going up against a solid defense. Every time I look at a team, I just kind of look at our defense and I say if we go out there and play our game, we can make things happen."

So don't tug on their cape.