By Jeremy Hritz
The Pittsburgh Steelers are seeking to earn their 11th consecutive home opening win, and in order to do so, they will have to show that they are up for the Music City challenge that will be presented by erratic third year quarterback Jake Locker and a running back that at one time was a home run threat on every carry, Chris Johnson. While Johnson doesn’t seem to be as explosive as he has been in previous seasons, he still managed to carry the ball 19 times for 91 yards against the Steelers in 2012, and the Titans will be looking for him to be highly involved in the offensive game plan come Sunday.
Locker, the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, has yet to show that he is capable of being an NFL caliber starter, mainly due to the fact that he has not been able to stay healthy. In his two seasons, he has thrown for nearly as many interceptions (11) as he has touchdowns (14). While his development as a quarterback may have been stunted by the lockout during his rookie season, if he is to elevate his game, this is his year to do so, and with a decent receiving corps highlighted by Kenny Britt and Nate Washington, he has decent weapons at his disposal. Locker has struggled in the NFL thus far with his accuracy with a career completion percentage of 55.5%, and while he showed signs of improvement in the preseason by completing 67.3% of his passes, he has to be able to carry it over into the regular season. If anything, Locker’s ability to move and run will cause the greatest headache for the Steelers.
Defensively in 2012, the Titans were simply not good, giving up an NFL worst 29.4 points per game and allowing offenses to convert of 40% of their third down tries. And while preseason isn’t a great indicator of regular season success, the Titans again struggled on defense. In a recent article in The Tennessean by John Glennon, he points out that there our four areas where the Titans must improve on defense if the Titans are to be a better team. He asserts that the defense must:
Not get behind early
Stop the run
Get off of the field on third down
Tighten up in the red zone
Improving one or two of these areas for a team in the NFL would be a challenge, but having a laundry list like the Titans do makes for a truly formidable task.
The Steelers have issues of their own, no question, though maybe not as pronounced as the Titans. The offensive line is young and unproven; the running back position has yet to be stabilized by a bell cow, though one is working his way back to health; and whether or not the team can stay healthy is a serious unknown.
But rising above all of the questions that have been debated to death this offseason is the fact that the Steelers have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and if protected (a seemingly big if) and if healthy, the Steelers can square up against any team and win.
There are more questions on the offensive side of the ball than there are on defense, and it will be the offense that will determine on Sunday whether or not Mike Tomlin will take his home opener record to 7-0.
With all of that said, and with an offseason of conjecture behind us, what can we expect this Sunday against the Titans?
What to Expect…
Expect the Steelers to put on an outstanding display on defense, and look for Troy Polamalu to continue his “hair-on-fire” play from the preseason. Combine that with an angry defense seeking to create turnovers and establish itself as a dominant group, and the number one ranked secondary from a season ago should keep Locker true to his 55.5% career completion percentage. The Steelers defense must play disciplined, however, to avoid Locker scrambling for a huge gain that could provide for a shift in momentum. Steve McLendon and either Jarvis Jones or Jason Worilds also must show that they can pick up where Casey Hampton and James Harrison left off, or even improve on their level of play from a season ago. If they don’t, it could open some running lanes for Chris Johnson, whom Dick LeBeau will make the focal point of the game plan.
On offense, expect… well, nobody really knows what to expect yet as we have not seen enough from the offensive line. While I don’t believe that they will be the sieve that they were at times in the preseason, and while they may have some growing pains early in the game, the more time that they get to play together, the more continuity they will build, and the more potent the offense will be. The good thing for the Steelers offense is that they will be facing a defense that is one of the weakest in the league, and it will provide a good opportunity for the offense to work out the kinks and establish a rhythm.
Keep Your Eye On…
Polamalu. He looked remarkable in the preseason. If he can stay healthy and sustain the energy he has shown thus far, there is no reason to believe that he won’t play lights out against the Titans, a team he normally shines against.
You just can’t bet against the Steelers at home in a season opener. A bad defense and an inexperienced quarterback against a pissed-off team looking to show that 8-8 was a fluke makes the Steelers the favorite in this contest. The Steelers play a strong game defensively and the offense gets better every quarter. The memory of the 0-4 preseason is forgotten.
Steelers 23, Titans 10