The Pittsburgh Steelers look to get their first road win of the 2012 season when they take on the Tennessee Titans Thursday night in Nashville. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is the Wednesday podcast preview of the game that features a great interview with Titans beat writer David Boclair of The Nashville City Paper.
More Middesome - Last week I suggested that the Steelers run right up the gut against the Philadelphia Eagles because the film showed that they were most vulnerable there and that they had problems getting enough helmets in gaps. Low and behold that is exactly what happened as the Steelers running game finally found its legs. This week the Steelers face a Titans defense that is more vulnerable between the tackles than what the Eagles were and I think we could once again see a heavy dose of Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman running right up the middle once again. The Steelers offensive line played great last week, outside of course of the Willie Colon penalties, and hopefully that continues tonight. The Titans also have a dinged up middle linebacker in Colin McCarthy, who is questionable with an ankle injury. McCarthy failed to practice all week and will not be 100% if he suits up.
Don\'t Get Hochulied - The penalties have to stop. Through the first four games the Steelers have been penalized 42 times to the tune of 346 yards. Those penalties also nullified 114 yards of offense along the way. Colon leads the team with 8 penalties and his 4 holding calls last week against the Eagles really hurt the offense. The pre snap penalties also need to stop as well as do the personnel fouls. Ed Hochuli will reportedly be the referee tonight and we know how much he loves face time. We will see how disciplined the team is tonight on a short week and they can\'t continue to shoot themselves in the foot.
Worilds Be Free - Jason Worilds will get the start tonight at left outside linebacker in place of the injured LaMarr Woodley, who will sit this one out with a mild hamstring strain. Worilds had a great effort last week after Woodley left early and the stage is set for the Steelers former second round draft pick to have a long awaited coming out party in front of a national television audience. Worilds seems much more comfortable on the left side than he does on the right and his number one priority will be to offer containment on the outside and force Titans running back Chris Johnson inside to help. Worilds will be going up against Titans right tackle David Stewart, who has been pretty solid so far in pass protection this year as he has allowed just 1 quarterback sack and less than 2 pressures a game. Worilds has the ability to be a huge factor in this game, and should he not play well, the bust talk surrounding him will grow even louder.
Short & Sweet - The Titans defense has had problems defending the short pass to either side. In 117 pass plays to the left or right the Titans defense has allowed more than 80% of them to be completed, which ranks them last in the league in both directions. The average gain in both directions is around 6.75 yards, and that is a chunk of yardage. The Steelers have been working the screens better this year and I think you will see quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spread the ball around to all of his eligibles to both short sides as a result. Rookie running back Chris Rainey has yet to make a signature play on offense and I will predict that he will have at least 1 explosive play in this game tonight and maybe even 2. Hitting the short areas early will force the Titans defenders to cheat up which in turn could set up a few homerun balls as Titans free safety Michael Griffin has not played well this season when asked to help over the top.
Don\'t Get Cooked In Red Zone - Of the 8 passing touchdowns that the Steelers have allowed in their first four games, 3 have been scored by tight ends. Opposing offenses have targeted their tight ends 26 times against the Steelers and have completed 20 of them to the tune of 168 yards. The Titans have a good one in Jared Cook, who is second on their team in receptions with 19. He also has 2 of the Titans 7 receiving touchdowns. Last week we saw safety Ryan Mundy give up an easy touchdown to Eagles tight end Brent Celek and the Titans would love to see Mundy draw Cook in this game, especially in the red zone off of play-action.
Hassle Hasselbeck Traditionally - Titans veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will make his second consecutive start with Jake Locker out for this game. The Steelers defense must be careful when blitzing him as he is smart enough to recognize it and throw against it. In fact, that is when he has been at his best in his playing time so far this season. Traditional four man pressure is what Hasselbeck has struggled with the most and quarterback hits will take their toll as the game goes on. Last week we saw Lawrence Timmons used a lot as a pass rusher and he was effective when he came. I am not saying that the Steelers shouldn\'t send him a lot in this game, only that Hasselbeck is a much better quarterback than Michael Vick at reading defenses, specifically blitzes.
Expect The Unexpected - Desperate teams do desperate things and the Titans certainly could be considered a desperate team right now at 1-4. Last week against the Minnesota Vikings the Titans ran a trick play with their punt team that featured safety Jordan Babineaux taking a direct snap 10 yards for a first down on 4th and 1. I expect a few gadget plays tonight from the Titans in an effort to spark their offense. The Steelers defense needs to be on the lookout for flea flickers, double reverses and passes by a running back or a wide receiver in this game, especially early on.
Prediction - Even with Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu sitting this game out, there is no reason why the Steelers shouldn\'t win this game and win it handedly. Of course the same thing could be said for the road game against the Oakland Raiders a few weeks ago and we saw what happened there. The Titans have allowed an average of 36.2 points per game this season while their offense has averaged just 17.6 points per game. The Steelers offense is second in the league in time of possession while the Titans offense is last. The Titans are bad football team right now and one the Steelers should blow out of the water. As long as the Steelers limit their penalties, and don\'t turn the ball over, they should win this game. A loss would be brutal. All of the above said, I think they win this one pretty easily with the Titans scoring late to make it look somewhat respectable.
Final Score - Steelers 31 Titans 17