There were many reasons why the Steelers finished last season with a .500 record and missed the postseason.
If one blamed the lack of turnovers forced, “the carousel of hobbling madness” known as the offensive line, and the overall lack of a consistent pass-rush, I would not disagree with them. In fact, those were enormous reasons why Pittsburgh’s players spent the months of January and February on their couches instead of competing for an A.F.C. title.
Yet what truly killed the Steelers last fall was when the team’s problems reared their ugly heads and left the team unable to “nut up” and put away vastly inferior opponents. One team in particular who caught them in a “trap game” in 2012 was the Tennessee Titans, and Pittsburgh’s players must make sure that another loss to a hungry Titans team will not happen at Heinz Field.
Jumping out early on a young team on the road like Tennessee is an absolute must on Sunday. Most of all however, the unit must take advantage of their red zone chances when they move inside Tennessee’s 20 yard-line.
While Heath Miller’s absence is going to hurt, Pittsburgh must find ways and players to cross the goal line instead of settling for field goals of 20 and 30 yards. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley must get creative with his play-calling with Miller on the bench, and the offensive line and running backs must prove to be capable options for Ben Roethlisberger to turn to when he is in need.
While Pittsburgh’s offense must strike quickly, their defensive players must do everything in their power to rattle, confuse, and destroy the confidence of Tennessee’s quarterback, Jake Locker. Aggressiveness is key, and if they allow the youngster to gain confidence with easy throws underneath by picking the defense apart things could get as ugly as last year’s matchup when Matt Hasselbeck did the exact same thing with Kenny Britt and Jared Cook.
If the Steelers wish to make Locker uncomfortable, then they must find ways to corral Chris Johnson and contain the rest of Tennessee’s ground-attack. Although Pittsburgh’s defense had handled Johnson well in the past, the speedster finally broke through with 91 yards on the ground and 23 through the air in the Titans’ 26-23 win last year.
With Johnson contained, the Steelers would be able to release the likes of LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, and Jarvis Jones on the young signal-caller in obvious passing situations. A healthy Troy Polamalu will also be an enormous plus for Pittsburgh’s secondary, and all will be well if Ike Taylor did not repeat his sloppy performance from last year either.
The Steelers’ coaching staff can also make a statement by using good judgement if the game is close in the fourth quarter. You know, like sending the punt unit on the field instead of trying a 54-yard field goal with under two minutes to go in a tied game like Mike Tomlin did last fall in Nashville.
In a season littered with ridiculous decision-making, I would argue that Tomlin’s choice to send Shaun Suisham out for that kick could have been the absolute worst. The 54-yarder would have been a career-long for the kicker, and Pittsburgh’s already calcified and tired defense would have been (and was) forced to defend an incredibly short field.
Then again readers, let’s try not to live in the past.
Pittsburgh’s losses to Oakland, Cleveland, and Tennessee last fall kept them out of the postseason, and I everyone on their roster knows it. I am not sure if their poor play in those games stemmed a lack of preparation or simply overconfidence, but they were certainly snared in those “trap games” in 2012.
With those memories still fresh in their minds, the Steelers will need to find ways to avoid losing to teams like the Titans this year if they wish to stay alive in the ultra-competitive AFC North. Maybe the lack of hype, nightmares from last season, and the return of Polamalu will do them well this fall. They cannot however take teams like Tennessee lightly if they want to return to the postseason.
If the recidivism continues though, 2013 could be a long season for Pittsburgh’s players and coaching staff.
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