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NFL Preview - Tennessee (0-0) at Pittsburgh (0-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin turned 41 years old in March.
He was still in his 20s back in 2000, when the Steelers -- led back then by a chinny fellow named Cowher -- last completed two NFL seasons without earning a postseason berth.
Stretching that streak to 13 years won't be as easy as the Steelers get ready to open the 2013 season against the Tennessee Titans.
Pittsburgh was an underwhelming 8-8 last season and enters the 2013 schedule with a number of question marks after a wave of free agent exits and offseason injuries flooded the roster.
QB Ben Roethlisberger lost certified deep threat Mike Wallace to a huge contract Miami and could be without safety valve tight end Heath Miller for at least the opener thanks to a lingering knee injury suffered late last season. In their combined absence arrive understudies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, who topped triple-digit catches and four-digit receiving yards as a tandem last season. Also available and important early is rookie Markus Wheaton.
Roethlisberger himself isn't the healthiest of quarterbacks after a 2012 season in which he sustained shoulder and rib injuries in Week 10 and missed three crucial games at the top of the season's homestretch. His effectiveness was tangibly reduced after his return, with the completion percentage down nearly 10 full points and the same number of INTs in the final four games as in the first nine.
As a result, the Steelers' playoff-worthy 6-3 start devolved into a mediocre 8-8 finish.
It was their first postseason miss since 2009 and just the second in six years under Tomlin, who won a Super Bowl in year two on the job after the 2008 season. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 1998, 1999 and 2000 while going 7-9, 6-10 and 9-7 in Cowher's seventh, eighth and ninth seasons, then began a stretch in which they've qualified in eight of 12 years.
"I like our preparation," Tomlin said. "We are focused on what is going to be required for us to do to win this weekend. We're going to take a business-like approach to it like we did in the preseason."
In the backfield, Roethlisberger will lean on Isaac Redman, who's trying to come back from missing the final two preseason games with a neck injury. Second-round draft pick Le'Veon Bell suffered a sprained foot and is trying to recover, while last year's team leader on the ground, Jonathan Dwyer, was cut.
Redman had 410 rushing yards and two TDs in intermittent duty last season, and added four receptions and 105 yards in a Week 6 loss at Tennessee.
"We know what Isaac is capable of," Tomlin said. "He's answered the bell for us in the past and we expect him to do it in a big way moving forward starting this weekend."
The Titans field a new-look defense under the guidance of Gregg Williams, who's back from a one-year NFL-imposed exile after the bounty issues that emanated from New Orleans two years ago.
Tennessee is in particular need of a quick fix after allowing a league-worst 29.4 points per game last season.
On offense, reinforcements arrived to the front line in the form of guard Andy Levitre, center Rob Turner and draft pick Chance Warmack, who'll aim to protect third-year passer Jake Locker.
Locker missed five games due to injury in 2012 and, like Roethlisberger, also struggled upon his return. He averaged only 147 pass yards per game in the season's final three weeks and compiled 2,176 yards with 11 INTs and 10 TDs overall.
Among his targets for 2013 are newcomers Kevin Walter (free agent) and Justin Hunter (draft choice). Holdover Kendall Wright led Tennessee with 64 catches as a rookie and Kenny Britt is also back and presumably healthier after a serious knee injury.
"We want to take it to the next level," Britt said. "We don't want to be one of them mediocre teams out there not making the playoffs every year."
Sharing that aim is running back Chris Johnson, a former 2,000-yard rusher who again cracked 1,000 in 2012. He ended with 1,243 yards and six TDs in spite of a late slump that saw him average just 60.2 yards per game in the final five weeks.
He's never rushed for 100 yards against the Steelers, who'll start the season with both linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu, each of whom missed time due to injury in 2012. Another of the Steelers' familiar names, James Harrison, is now a Cincinnati Bengal after he was released.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
A healthy Polamalu will be a significant obstacle for Tennessee's Johnson as the latter seeks to return to his past 2,000-yard form. He's expected to play close to the line of the scrimmage and use his speed to contend with Johnson, whose speed is also a factor against a less-than-fleet Steelers linebacking corps.
Going the other direction, it'll be a matchup between newly christened No. 1 Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown and Tennessee's top cover cornerback, Jason McCourty. Brown won't be the deep threat that predecessor Wallace was before bolting for Miami, and he'll likely face routine man coverage from McCourty, who'll need to stay close to negate the play-sustaining ability of Roethlisberger.
The more success McCourty has, the more Pittsburgh will be forced to rely on the running backs.
Heading into Heinz Field to begin the season isn't typically an enviable task, but this year's Steelers -- at least at the outset -- don't appear to be the typical Steelers.
If Johnson can get to 100 yards and Locker can stay vertical for the majority of 60 minutes, Tennessee might just have enough of a firepower advantage to repeat last season's triumph.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Titans 24, Steelers 21
09/05 11:29:37 ET
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