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Steelers hitting all the right notes

By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - As 13-time Grammy Award winner Jay-Z says, sometimes you've got to get that dirt off your shoulder.

The Pittsburgh Steelers not only knocked Tom Brady and the New England Patriots from their upper torsos, but also established themselves once again as the team to beat in the AFC.

New England has always made a habit of playing Simon to Pittsburgh's Garfunkel, continually one-upping the club in head-to-head meetings. Prior to Sunday's matchup, the Patriots had won seven of the previous nine encounters between the teams, and that span included victories in both the 2001 and 2004 AFC Championship games that were held in Pittsburgh.

Needless to say, Brady and company seemed to have the Steelers' number.

But even Art Garfunkel can deliver an "All I Know" every now and then, and the Steelers had the Patriots all out of rhythm in Sunday's 25-17 victory, Pittsburgh's first at home over a Brady-led New England team since 2004.

Pittsburgh got an outstanding effort from a defense that was without two of its best players due to injury.
While Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin plainly said afterwards that his team's goal for this game was "to win," linebacker Lawrence Timmons put the triumph in more of a perspective.

"It's a huge step," he said. "The New England Patriots have [head coach Bill] Belichick and Brady. This is a team that contends in the AFC every year and goes to the championship or the Super Bowl. So having this win, in our house, is huge and it's something to build on."

In winning a fourth straight game and maintaining a half-game edge over Cincinnati and Baltimore for first place in the AFC North, Pittsburgh got an outstanding effort from a defense that was without two of its best players due to injury in linebackers James Harrison and James Farrior. Defensive tackle Chris Hoke was also out, leaving starts for the likes of Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester as well as increased playing time for rookies Chris Carter and Cortez Allen due to some other nagging ailments to the unit.

That didn't stop the Steelers from limiting the Patriots' top-ranked offense to only 213 yards and at least four drives that didn't move more than 20 yards, including two three-and-outs.

Thanks to that effort and the offense taking care of things on its end, Pittsburgh held the ball for nearly 40 minutes in the game.

"It was paramount," Tomlin said of the Steelers' offensive effort. "They know that. We know that. We needed to control the ball and keep their offense off the field, which made controlling it difficult."

Pittsburgh's offense scored on three of its first four possessions to take a 17-7 lead early on, and the Pats were held to less than 20 points for the first time since Nov. 7 of last year. New England also failed to score in the first quarter for the first time since that same game, a 34-14 loss at Cleveland.

"That's good. We love when our offense is out there," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley. "We love when we get three-and-outs and get off the field fast. Their defense gets a little tired and it gives our offense a little bit of time to put some points on the board."

A lot of credit has to go to the veteran Foote, who has replaced Harrison as the unit's leader. Pittsburgh has won all four games that the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year has missed with an eye injury, but Harrison could return for this weekend's big game with the Baltimore Ravens.

Pittsburgh could use Harrison back after the embarrassing 35-7 defeat it suffered in Baltimore back in Week 1, a loss in which the Steelers turned the ball over seven times.

With six victories in seven games since, Pittsburgh has certainly built its own bridge over troubled water. That path seems destined for another Super Bowl run.

RB CONTROVERSLY BREWING IN TENNESSEE

The biggest news to come out of Nashville this weekend wasn't a 27-10 victory over the winless Indianapolis Colts that moved the Tennessee Titans to 4-3 on the season, right behind the first-place Houston Texans (5-3) in the AFC South.

Instead, it was another disappointing outing from Chris Johnson -- against one of the worst rushing defenses to boot -- and a solid effort from backup Javon Ringer that has some thinking a retooling to the Titans' run approach is in order.

Johnson held out this entire offseason for a new contract before signing a four-year, $53 million deal at the start of September. All Tennessee has gotten in return so far is 302 rushing yards in seven games, an average of 2.8 per carry. The 26-year-old has topped 100 yards in a game only once.

In Sunday's win over the Colts, Johnson managed only 34 yards on 14 carries. Ringer, meanwhile, posted 60 yards on an equal number of chances and also caught five passes for 42 yards.

"The coaches have a rotation, I guess trying to jump-start us," Johnson said afterwards. "What the coaches have dialed up, we as players have to go out there and perform when it's our time to perform."

Head coach Mike Munchak said he isn't actively trying to rotate his backs.

"Well, I think every game will be different," Munchak said. "I just think it depends on the flow of the game, how it's going. I don't think we're consciously trying to decide by series who's playing. We're not doing any of that."

While the Titans have to be disappointed with how Johnson has performed so far, one player knows he is still the No. 1 back on the roster.

"I know that right now C.J. is our guy," said Ringer. "C.J. was blessed to do tremendous things his first couple of years here. He has earned everything that he has right now. Right now he is the guy. I am the No. 2 guy. I know my role."

If Johnson can't find the form that made him a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his first three seasons -- including a 2,006-yard outburst in 2009 -- than Ringer's role may just be changing sooner rather than later.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Michael Rushton at mrushton@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Michael Rushton on Twitter and Facebook.

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