The Steelers are half way to playing with house money for the first four games after slipping past Atlanta last week in week 1 of the NFL season. The win was huge and takes a ton of pressure off of the team immediately as they head out for their first road game of 2010. A win in Nashville would be epic and put the Steelers in a fantastic position heading into week 3. Per my usual here, below are 7 keys to the game that I believe the Steelers need to focus on to beat the Titans and a game prediction at the end.
No Big Johnson Outside - For me to tell you how dangerous Titans running back Chris Johnson is would be like telling you that water is wet. You already know it. The best thing the Steelers defense can do is to keep Johnson off the edges and force him inside. This is the opposite of what they accomplished last week with Falcons running back Michael Turner, who they wanted to force outside as he is most dangerous running north and south and between the tackles. The Steelers can not let Johnson break the big one like he is known to do. He is going to have a few big runs here and there and will be very active in the passing game, but the tackling must be spot on for the Steelers and Johnson can\'t be allowed any game changing homerun type runs. He can change a game with one touch of the ball.
Dixon In Spaces - If the Titans learned anything last week from the Steelers Falcons game is that they need to force Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon to make his throws into tight spots and outside the numbers. They likely will not blitz much and will try to confuse Dixon by dropping the occasional end or linebacker into coverage and passing lanes, post snap. They will want to make Dixon beat them with his arm and not his legs. They want him in the pocket. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians must finally let Dixon try to get outside the pocket with designed runs or roll outs as it will force the Titans to defend differently. Dixon has to be better than last week and can not rely on the defense to keep winning games. He has to take what is given him and complete passes on third downs to move the chains. 3rd down passing stats will likely be key in this game in deciding the winner. 3rd downs have no been kind to Dixon in his first two starts.
See Vince Throw - Just as the Titans want Dixon to throw from the pocket, the Steelers want to do the same with Titans quarterback Vince Young. They want to keep Young in the pocket and force him to get the ball to Nate Washington, Kenny Britt and Justin Gage. The defense will be more concerned with nailing down the edges against the feet of both Young and Johnson and not so much worried about inside pass rushing. The more passing attempts Young has, the more likely he is to make a mistake.
Special Teams Get More Special - Week 1 showed a ton of promise from the 2010 special teams unit. Everything looked fine except for the one easy miss from Jeff Reed and an almost disastrous collision on one punt return catch. Jason Worilds and Emmanuel Sanders will both be out this week, so look for rookies Thaddeus Gibson and Antonio Brown to both contribute this week. I suspect Mike Tomlin will take the safe approach once again by letting Antwaan Randle El return punts once again. El is not likely to break one, but he is not likely to make a huge mistake either. Just as long as special teams does not lose the game, all is well. They very well could win the game though on the flip side as I expect this to be a close game.
Hokey Pokey - Defensive line coach John Mitchell did a great job rotating in the defensive line last week versus the Falcons. This week the line will be a man down with nose tackle Casey Hampton sidelined with a hamstring injury this week. Chris Hoke will start at nose tackle and will come out for a nickel corner on passing downs. On long Titans drives however, Hoke may need a few plays off so it will be interesting to see who gets the nose snaps on early downs should that indeed be the case. It is not out of the question for Hoke to not get spelled at all, but he will certainly be worn down late in the game. The Steelers look to only dress 5 defensive lineman on Sunday and can\'t afford another in-game injury.
Great Scott? - Jonathan Scott came over with new offensive line coach Sean Kugler from Buffalo this offseason and looks likely to start in place of the injured Max Starks at left tackle. Scott played ok in relief of Starks last week and now needs to show he can do it for a full game. Tony Hills will be up and waiting in the wings should he fall on his face.
Up The Back Of Pouncey - Rookie Maurkice Pouncey is showing to be fearless in the center of the line and makes both Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex look even better in run blocking in the process. The Titans defense is most vulnerable up the gut and a mixture of Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman gashing the middle behind solid blocking will cause the linebackers and safeties to stay honest and open up the middle of the field for the receivers to sit down in. 30 rushes on the day just might be the magic number for the Steelers to win. They must shorten the game by running well and set up short 3rd downs to ease the pressure on Dixon to convert 3rd and longs.
Steelers Titans Game Prediction - If the Steelers defense continues to play up to the same level as they did in week 1, every week presents an opportunity to win. This week Chris Johnson presents the biggest challenge, but not one the Steelers have not faced before. Dennis Dixon should be even more relaxed now in his 3rd start and should improve on the things he has done wrong so far. He needs to just relax and not aim his passes. As long as he does not turn the ball over and can lead just a few scoring drives, the Steelers can indeed win this. I am forever the optimist and think the Steelers will pull out another low scoring nail biter.
Final Score: Steelers 17 Titans 16