NFL Preview - Tennessee (0-0) at Pittsburgh (0-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers will begin their title defense with a brimming AFC rivalry, when Mike Tomlin's team plays host to the Tennessee Titans in the NFL's formal opener on Thursday night.
The Steelers polished off their NFL-record sixth Super Bowl title on Feb. 1st, defeating the Arizona Cardinals in a 27-23 thriller, but they couldn't count the Titans as one of their 15 regular season or playoff victories during the 2008 campaign.
In fact, Pittsburgh's 31-14 loss at Tennessee last Dec. 21st was the most lopsided of the team's four defeats last season, and kept the Steelers (12-4) a game behind the Titans (13-3) in the race for the top seed in the conference.
The most enduring image from that game, when all was said and done, was the specter of Titans running back LenDale White stomping on the Steelers' ubiquitous "Terrible Towel" on the sideline, an act that figures to make the burly rusher persona non grata with the Heinz Field faithful on Thursday night.
The Steelers did not get a chance to avenge the loss, or White's disrespectful act, in the playoffs because the Titans were bounced from the postseason by the Ravens (13-10) in a Divisional Round game last Jan. 10th.
Pittsburgh will field largely the same team it did in the win over Arizona in February, a group that will include quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger had a tumultuous summer, one that saw his name appear in the headlines due to a civil allegation of rape leveled against him by a Lake Tahoe hotel employee. Later, the two-time Super Bowl-winning signal-caller missed multiple games of preseason action when he had his foot stepped on in practice by Pittsburgh tackle Max Starks.
The Titans have not gone through many changes in the offseason either, though Thursday will mark their first meaningful action without All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who signed a $100 million free agent contract with the Washington Redskins in the winter.
The Steelers will be trying to maintain a positive streak by reigning Super Bowl champions, which have won the next year's regular season opener in each of the last nine seasons. The 1998 Denver Broncos, who followed up their Super Bowl XXXIII win over the Falcons with a 38-21 Week 1 loss to the Miami Dolphins in 1999, are the last defending champion to open their subsequent slate on a losing note.
The Steelers own a 38-29 edge in the all-time regular season series with the Titans, including the latter franchise's years as the Houston Oilers. Tennessee was a 31-14 home winner when the clubs last met, in Week 16 of last season. Pittsburgh won the previous meeting, a 34-7 decision at Heinz Field in the 2005 regular season opener. The Titans' last win at Heinz Field came in 2003.
In addition to the regular season history, Pittsburgh has a 3-1 advantage in the postseason series between the clubs. The Steelers defeated the then-Oilers in 1978 and 1979 AFC Championship Games at Three Rivers Stadium, and were 26-23 overtime winners at the Astrodome in a 1989 AFC First-Round Playoff. Tennessee's lone win in the playoff series was a 34-31 overtime victory in a 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff played in Nashville.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher is 12-7 against the Steelers in his career, while Pittsburgh's Tomlin is 0-1 against both Fisher and Tennessee as a head coach.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Titans have seemingly made offseason strides to strengthen their passing game, Tennessee will remain largely a run-first team in 2009. Chris Johnson (1228 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 10 TD) comes off a Pro Bowl appearance as a rookie, while White has slimmed down since the end of last season and is expected to be more of a force between the 20s than he was a year ago. Johnson and White (773 rushing yards, 15 TD) combined for 117 yards on 31 rushes against the Steelers last year, and both reached the end zone. The passing attack will again be the domain of 36-year-old journeyman Kerry Collins (2676 passing yards, 12 TD, 7 INT), and a couple of new weapons could help him be more than simply a game manager in 2009. First-round rookie Kenny Britt (Rutgers) and ex-Steeler Nate Washington (40 receptions, 3 TD with Pittsburgh) were brought in to enhance the receiving corps during the offseason, though Washington was knocked out of the preseason with a hamstring problem and might not be able to face his former team. Wideout Justin Gage (34 receptions, 6 TD) and tight end Bo Scaife (58 receptions, 2 TD) are the team's top returning targets. Collins was an efficient 20-of-29 for 215 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers last December, including a 34-yard touchdown pass to Gage.
In order to find the win column on Thursday, the Steelers will need to limit the ability of Johnson and White to control the game on the ground. The three- man line of nose tackle Casey Hampton (25 tackles, 1 sack) and ends Brett Keisel (34 tackles, 1 sack) and Aaron Smith (62 tackles, 5.5 sacks) will be at the heart of that effort, but an ankle injury to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (65 tackles, 5 INT, 1 sack) means the group working behind the three- man front is a mystery. If Timmons can't go, Keyaron Fox (17 tackles) will line up alongside mainstay James Farrior (146 tackles, 3.5 sacks). The much- ballyhooed Pittsburgh pass rush was able to sack Collins just one time in the meeting last year, and outside linebackers James Harrison (100 tackles, 16 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (78 tackles, 11.5 sacks) will have an interest in improving that number. In the secondary, Ike Taylor (75 tackles, 1 INT) and William Gay (38 tackles, 1 INT) will have primary responsibility in defending the wideouts, and safeties Troy Polamalu (87 tackles, 7 INT) and Ryan Clark (113 tackles, 1 INT) will lend support. Pittsburgh was No. 2 in the league against the run last year, and No. 1 versus the pass.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger (3301 passing yards, 17 TD, 15 INT) had a rough go of it against the Titans last season, and the inconsistent Pittsburgh offensive line must do a better job of protecting him. The quarterback was sacked five times in the loss, with most of the pressure coming from the interior line. The only change for the Steelers along the front is at right guard, where Trai Essex replaces the departed Darnell Stapleton. When he was able to get the ball off, Roethlisberger did complete 25-of-39 passes for 329 yards with two touchdowns and two picks, and top receivers Hines Ward (81 receptions, 7 TD) and Santonio Holmes (55 receptions, 5 TD) combined for over 200 yards worth of catches in the contest. Tight end Heath Miller (48 receptions, 3 TD) posted a game-high eight catches for 69 yards in the loss. That said, the Steelers are hopeful that Roethlisberger can be placed in harm's way on a less frequent basis due to the rushing of Willie Parker (791 rushing yards, 5 TD). Parker was limited to 31 yards on 19 carries by the Titans last December.
Tennessee was Top 10 against both the run and pass last season, though there is some natural nervousness about how the unit will look following the departure of both Haynesworth and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. New DC Chuck Cecil will look to second-year tackle Jason Jones (31 tackles, 5 sacks) and free agent pickup Jovan Haye (33 tackles with Tampa Bay) to help compensate for the absence of the All-Pro, and the presence of returnee Tony Brown (52 tackles, 4 sacks) at the other tackle spot should help as well. Jones had a huge game against the Steelers last December, breaking through for 3.5 sacks of Roethlisberger. Ends Kyle Vanden Bosch (24 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Jevon Kearse (34 tackles, 3.5 sacks) will be attempting to apply pressure as well, and a playmaking secondary led by cornerback Cortland Finnegan (70 tackles, 5 INT) and safety Michael Griffin (75 tackles, 7 INT) will be looking to benefit on the back end. The Titans' linebacking corps is led by the emerging Stephen Tulloch (84 tackles) in the middle, with veterans Keith Bulluck (98 tackles) and David Thornton (78 tackles) on the flanks.
The strength of these defenses makes starting skill position players problematic, though it is worth noting that both Titans running backs, Roethlisberger, and all of his main targets had decent production when these teams faced of last season. You shouldn't elevate any backs or receivers for whom you envision a backup role during the season, but if you have any Tennessee or Pittsburgh skill players in the starting slots, you should feel somewhat comfortable in rolling with them. Both defenses are fantasy-start quality as well, as are kickers Jeff Reed (Pittsburgh) and Rob Bironas (Tennessee).
How Pittsburgh is able to defend its Super Bowl title over the course of 16 games remains to be seen, but for this contest, the Steelers should be fired up in pursuit of a win. There is no overestimating the notion of pride here, and the Steelers remember all too well what the Titans did to them on the field, as well as White's towel-stomping routine on the sideline. Tennessee is a high-quality team, and will hang around mainly on the strength of its top- notch defense, but the Titans remain a work-in-progress offensively and won't make nearly as many big plays against the Steelers as they did last December in Nashville.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Titans 13
09/08 13:37:54 ET