The Pittsburgh Steelers will open up their 2013 season at Heinz Field on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans and below are seven things to look for heading into the game.
It's A Trap - There has been a lot of talk about the Titans possibly running some read-option Sunday, but I'm starting to think we might not see much if any of it. Why? They don't have to. Both Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack are very good on the move, and the Titans love to run the trap to either side because of it. They also run the inside and outside zone and once again, their guards are great at it. The Titans will try to wear down the Steelers defense with traditional power running. They want Troy Polamalu in the box and the Steelers cornerbacks to have to make as many tackles as possible. If they do that, it will open up their deep passing game more. The Steelers front seven must control the gaps, and the inside linebackers have to defeat the guards in order to shut down the Titans run game. They are much more physical than I thought they were.
Play Action - If Locker doesn't use play-action on 12 or more plays in this game I will be shocked. Hell, he might even use it 20 times in this game. If you watch their third preseason game, you will notice just how much he uses it and how effective it is, especially being as they ran the ball great in that game. If the Steelers are unable to stop the run early, they will have to load up the box and that will make the secondary a little more vulnerable if the pass rush is unable to get home.
Boot Misdirection - If it looks like all of these things to watch center around the run game and Locker, you are very astute. In addition to power running and the use of play-action, the Titans also like to use misdirection in order to get Locker on the move outside the pocket where he is very accurate with his throws. The Steelers outside linebackers have to be very disciplined about staying home and not over pursue inside. If Locker can get outside uncontested, he will hit one of his wide receivers on a crossing pattern or his tight end on an out pattern with ease.
Do Unto Others - Just as the Titans offense likes to run the power and the inside-outside zone, their defense appears to be susceptible to it as well. Their linebackers aren't great. Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers are just getting over injuries, and both saw very limited action during the preseason. I will be surprised if both play every snap in this game. The Steelers need to get their guards or a fullback singled up McCarthy, who should be pretty easy to take care of. If the offensive line does their job, the Steelers running backs could have a very good game. Running well early will force safety Bernard Pollard up into the box and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the real king of play-action, should then be able to carve up the Titans secondary down the middle of the field.
Attack Alterraun - Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner is the weakest link in the secondary and Antonio Brown will likely be the one that sees him the most. During the preseason, Verner was thrown out 18 times and allowed 13 receptions for 181 yards. In addition, Verner was flagged twice during the preseason, once for illegal contact and once for pass interference. In addition to throwing at Verner, the Steelers should consider running to his side as well as they can wear him down a bit by forcing him to make a few tackles. Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake coached Verner for one season at UCLA, so he should know all about his weaknesses. Verner is only 5-10, but very aggressive. That aggressiveness, however, leads to him making mistakes at times.
Attack The Injured Calf - Titans starting right tackle David Stewart has a calf injury that he's trying to overcome, so LaMarr Woodley will be going up against damaged goods on Sunday. Woodley not only needs a solid game in the pass rushing department, but he also needs to make sure he sets the edge well against the Titans run-first offense in an effort to funnel everything back inside to help. Should Woodley not play well in this game, the catcalls will start immediately and with good reason. The Steelers need their left outside linebacker to have a hell of a bounce back year and judging by the way he played during the preseason; he looks like he is fully healthy.
Tight End By Committee - Heath Miller is still not ready to play so David Paulson, David Johnson and Michael Palmer all figure to get work against the Titans. The Steelers offense will likely want to use two tight end personnel groupings on at least 25% of their plays, so they need to find a combination that works in the running game. Should fullback Will Johnson wind up not playing, that will create yet another problem, and it could result in David Johnson having to play a little fullback. These tight ends have their work cut out for them as defensive ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley both played the run well during the preseason.