It has been 331 days since the Steelers last fell to the Titans in the final seconds of Thursday night football last October. In 2012, this became common, as they lost to teams they shouldn’t have, such as the Titans, Raiders, Browns, and the Chargers. Mike Tomlin’s teams have had issues with playing down to teams abilities in the past, and this week, the Steelers find themselves in the same situation. How do the Steelers refrain from falling for the trap? Below are the five keys to the game for the Steelers to put a “W” in the win column.
1. Contain the Titans Running Game
When you ask the average NFL fan who they think of when you say “the Tennessee Titans?” It’s almost a guarantee that they would say, “Chris Johnson.” Since coming into the league in 2008, Johnson has rushed for 6,804 yards, and has scored 44 touchdowns. With his top end speed, Chris Johnson is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. In the past, the Steelers have done a very good job at containing him, only giving up 57 yards to him in 2009, but this year, the Titans look to have a punishing offensive line with new additions in LG Andrew Levitre and RG Chance Warmack. These men have looked sharp in the preseason and they will be looking to clear lanes for their running backs. Shonn Greene was also brought in this offseason to back up Johnson, and he will be a nice change of pace back for Johnson. Even Jake Locker is a rushing threat, gaining almost 300 yards on the ground in 2012.
This sets up for a great matchup against the Steelers run defense, which finished second in the league last season. On Sunday, Steve McLendon will be given his second start of his career, and he looks to have a tough day ahead of him. Facing the likes of Chance Warmack and Levitre, McLendon will need to be a force in the middle, commanding double teams. If McLendon can do this, it frees up Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote to make plays, and make tackles. Quite honestly, if guys like McLendon, Hood, Heyward and Keisel can get constant drive and take up blockers, the Titans offense will struggle. Of course, this is easier said than done.
With James Harrison in Cincinnati, the Steelers are loosing one of the best run defending outside linebackers in the game. Hopefully, the combination of Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds will be able to set the edge. If all 11 defenders stay disciplined and play fast, hard, and physical, the Steelers defense should once again contain Chris Johnson and the Titans rushing attack.
2. Get the Offensive Line On Track
Seven seasons have passed since the Steelers last had an offensive line with multiple Probowl level players. Not since the days of Alan Faneca have the Steelers had an offensive line group that could be considered a strength of the team. After the drafting of Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, and Mike Adams early on in each respective players draft, the Steelers need these four players to come up big for the team. Throughout the preseason, the Steelers offensive line struggled, and has made it look like it could be a long year for Ben Roethlisberger. Pouncey, the three-time Probowl selection, had the worst preseason of all five in my opinion.
Against the Titans, the starting five need to show everyone that the preseason was just the growing pains of these starting five playing together. Against the Titans, they will be tasked with stopping the likes of Derrick Morgan, Ropati Pitoitua, Sammie Hill, and arguably the best player on their defense, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. If the Steelers want to run the ball, the offensive line needs to step up in a big way and create holes with the new blocking scheme Coach Bicknell brings with him. We know what Roethlisberger and the receivers are capable of, so to me, the offensive success against the Titans will be determined by the five men up front.
3. Cornerback’s Keep the Receivers Out of the End-zone
It may sound pretty obvious, but with the way the NFL has evolved into arguably a passing league, shutdown corners are not easy to find. When the Steelers let Keenan Lewis walk in free agency this past offseason, many, including myself, were not quite sure of the Steelers reasoning. Ike Taylor is a top cover corner in the league, but he is 33 and is only under contract through 2014, and while Cortez Allen looks to be a future star, the Steelers have major depth concerns now, and in the future. Behind the two, the Steelers have William Gay, and Curtis Brown. You can’t say with a straight face that you would be confident if either of those two players had to come in and start. I thought William Gay improved in 2011 until he left for Arizona, but he looked to be back to his 2007-2010 ways this preseason. Curtis Brown has been just as bad, or worse, and the Steelers are looking more and more dumb for not even attempting to extend Keenan Lewis.
While the Titans receiving group is not the Green Bay Packers, or the Denver Broncos, they still have a fairly deep group of receivers that garners attention. With two former first round picks in Kenny Britt, and Kendall Wright, as well as former Steeler Nate Washington, and 2013 second round pick Justin Hunter, the Titans have a group of receivers that may not scare you, but as they showed last year against the Steelers, they have the ability to surprise you if you give them a chance. It becomes vital that the Steelers corners can shutdown the pass because it is much easier to defend against Chris Johnson if you don’t have to worry as much about the passing game.
4. Danny Smith Needs to Have a Great Debut as the Steelers Special Teams Coach
in 2012, special teams were the Steelers worst nightmare. While Shaun Suisham had a great year, the rest of the special teams struggled. One play that comes to mind was the blocked punt against the Titans. This really was the game changer, and if not for this blocked punt for the touchdown, the Steelers would have probably won this game. With Amos Jones leaving for Arizona, the Steelers brought in Pittsburgh native, Danny Smith. Smith has sought to make special teams a strength of the team instead of a hinderence, but so far through the preseason, it has looked a lot like last years special teams play.
Danny Smith looks to make the preseason special teams play a distant memory and this begins today against the Titans. Zoltan Mesko hopes to come in and become a constant at punter after the Steelers signed him off the market, following Mesko being cut by the Steelers. The Steelers chances of winning grow bigger if their punter can constantly pin the other team deep. The Steelers also look to find some magic from the small running back/kick returner Larod Stephens-Howling. LASH, as Coach Tomlin likes to call him, has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his four-year career, as well as over 4,000 total return yards. If Stephens-Howling can return one back for a touchdown, it could be the difference in the game.
5. The Return of DPOY Troy Polamalu Needs to Come Against Titans
If there is one play that may highlight Troy Polamalu’s all-pro career, it might very well be his superman tackle against the Titans in 2010. Going airborne over the Titans offensive line, tackling Kerry Collins, stopping the Titans on the goal line. If Polamalu can return to this form, the Steelers should have no problem stopping the Titans offense.
Throughout the preseason, Troy has made several athletic plays, and he looks to be in his old run defending form, but with the Steelers struggling to get turnovers the past two seasons, the Steelers need Polamalu to kindle some of his old turnover magic that made him defensive player of the year in 2010. With a young quarterback in Jake Locker, the chances of Polamalu making a big play is better than if he was facing Manning or Brady, but Polamalu needs to stay disciplined and play the game that has made him such a terror for opposing offensive coordinators.
While this may be the first game of the season, this could be viewed as a must win for a Steelers team that wants to get back to the playoffs following an 8-8 season. It is vital to win home games, as away games are much harder to come by. It is also important that the Steelers beat teams like the Titans who are seen as less talented opponents. Of course, on paper the Steelers look like a better team than the Titans, but like the Titans showed last year, there’s a reason you play the game.
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Steelers tickets are still available for today’s game against the Titans. Make sure to grab them while you can and cheer on the Black and Yellow in their season opener!