Finally, football has returned to Pittsburgh…
After an unusually long off-season following a disappointing 8-8 campaign, the Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field hoping a dubious mix of aging veterans and unproven youngsters will lead them back to the promised land. First up this Sunday is an appointment with the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.
TITANS OFFENSE vs STEELERS DEFENSE
Tennessee finds themselves in the same position many a rebuilding team end up. The NFL is a quarterback-centric league. Last year’s Super Bowl champions aside, you don’t tend to succeed in today’s game without an upper echelon signal caller. So every year QB-needy teams take a young QB in the first round or two and pray he pans out.
The Titans are still waiting on 2011 first round pick (8th overall) Jake Locker. As a rookie, he backed up veteran Matt Hasselbeck, who engineered an overtime win over the Steelers last season, before getting a chance to start late in the year. Last season, Locker was the starter from Day 1, muddling through an injury-filled and ultimately disappointing campaign. He started 11 games, completing just over 50% of his passes and finishing with 10 TDs/11 INTs.
For the Titans to compete with teams like Houston or Indy – they were a miserable 1-5 in the division last year – Locker has to prove he can hang with the likes of Matt Schaub or Andrew Luck. They’ve given him some fine weapons to utilize in the passing game. WR Kenny Britt is one of the league’s more explosive playmakers. Over the off-season, they signed TE Delanie Walker, who is such a gifted pass-catcher he saw quite a bit of action for the 49ers despite the presence of Pro-Bowler Vernon Davis.
Of course the Titans – and Locker’s – best hope for an effective offense lies in RB Chris Johnson. Since gaining 2,000 yards in 2009, Cop Speed has averaged a little over 1,000 yards the past two seasons. If CJ could return to elite form, a lot of pressure would come off Locker and the rest of the offense. Look at the difference having a guy like Ray Rice or Arian Foster makes for their quarterbacks.
The new look Steelers defense was ranked first last year but were in many ways paper champions. Holding teams to the fewest yards is fine but splash plays are even better. Last year’s team was among the league’s worst at generating sacks and forcing turnovers.
LaMarr Woodley is now The Man on defense. He’ll need to prove he can be the same devastating force without James Harrison lining up opposite him. Jason Worilds takes Deebo’s old spot and will likely split time with first round pick Jarvis Jones. Lawrence Timmons had a breakout season last year and could prove to be even more dangerous this year with a little better protection up front from the likes of new NT Steve McClendon.
TITANS DEFENSE vs STEELERS OFFENSE
Much like the Titans, if the Steelers are to improve this year, they need to get better on offense. Year Two of the Todd Haley Era will in many ways be a make or break campaign. Lost in the disappointment was the fact for the first month or so of the season, Ben Roethlisberger was on track to have his finest season as a pro. Only once injuries started to pile up did his level of play of go down the crapper. It’s imperative the Steelers new look offensive line keep Ben healthy and upright – although last year’s major injury came on one of his patent sandlot improvisations so even if they do their job, there’s no guarantee.
Rebuilding the running game has been Haleys’ goal since the start. He had hoped to have a new weapon in Le’Veon Bell but Bell is hurt so it’s back to old standby Isaac Redman. Redzone is what he is but at least the team has a viable secondary option in Felix Jones. LaRod Stephens-Howling should also be a much more dynamic third down type back than his predecessor, Chris Rainey, was.
With Mike Wallace off to Miami, Young Money is no more. Antonio Brown will have to prove he can get the job done without Wallace drawing double-teams. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Sanders needs to step out of the other two’s shadows and finally establish himself as a capable starter. People forget way back during their rookie year of 2010, Sanders actually showed more promise than AB, at least until the playoffs. Since then, injuries and general ineffectiveness have hampered his career.
The Titans defense was among the league’s worst, ranking in the bottom in the bottom six against both the run and pass while allowing the most points of any team. To that end, they’ve added four new starters and hired disgraced Bountygate D-coordinator Gregg Williams to oversee the rebuild. Williams did work wonders with the Saints D albeit with more talent than the Titans would seemingly possess.
The season won’t be won or lost on Sunday. However, when you’re dealing with as many questions marks as the Steelers, a resounding victory would certainly help assuage some of those concerns. And don’t forget, the games played in September count the same as those played in December. After a winless preseason, it sure would be nice to win for a change.