The Steelers and Titans have played once every year for the past five seasons despite not being in the same division. Tennessee has gone 2-3 against Pittsburgh in that span, including a 31-14 beatdown they delivered to the eventual Super Bowl champs in 2008, a 13-10 loss in OT on opening night in 2009, and a 26-23 win on Thursday Night Football last year with Matt Hasselbeck at the helm. In the other two contests, the Titans lost both by a combined score of 57-28.
It’s a new year though, and the Steelers haven’t dominated the AFC as they once did, appearing in only one playoff game in the past two years. The Titans, though, haven’t had a taste of the postseason since 2008. Tennessee has upgraded their offensive line, but a lot still rest on former first-round QB Jake Locker. Meanwhile, the Steelers still have Big Ben and a perennially dominant defense, but with a questionable offensive line and the losses of WR Mike Wallace and OLB James Harrison. Can the Titans even the score and go 3-3 against the Steelers in the past six seasons?
Chris Johnson vs. Steelers Defense
Chris “CJ2K” Johnson’s struggles the past few years are common knowledge. Though he rushed for the ninth-most yards among RBs last season (between C.J. Spiller and Frank Gore) his actual rushing grade (-2.4) was tied for 50th among all ballcarriers. His first shot at redemption will be against a Steelers defense without Harrison, who was by far the unit’s best run defender last season.
The Titans upgraded their interior line in the offseason with the reliable Andy Levitre and first-round draft pick Chance Warmack from Alabama, which should help Johnson. Also in his favor is that he had one of his best games of last season against Pittsburgh, averaging 4.8 yards-per-carry and collecting 91 yards on 19 carries. But, despite the loss of Harrison, the Steelers’ defense could be improved against ground attacks with Steve McLendon (+4.0 in run defense for the preseason) taking over for the aged, departed veteran Casey Hampton at nose tackle. Not to mention all the other playmakers the Steelers still have on that side of the ball.
Steelers Offensive Line vs. Titans Pass Rush
The Steelers’ offensive line has seemingly always been a liability, and if the preseason is any indication, this year could be no different. Guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster performed well in the exhibition games, allowing only a sack and three hurries between them. But leaks sprung elsewhere. Left tackle Mike Adams, who played some right tackle last year and was the victim of a stabbing assault this offseason, did not inspire confidence with his -2.0 pass blocking grade and two penalties. Center Maurkice Pouncey also failed to impress (-1.0 blocking grade and three penalties). RT Marcus Gilbert performed better in the preseason, but he played in only five games last season.
The Titans could give the Steelers’ offensive line some trouble. Defensive end Derrick Morgan was tied with Chris Long for the third-highest Pass Rushing Productivity mark among 4-3 ends. On the other end is former first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley, who has graded far above-average in pass rushing the past three seasons (and even when he didn’t in 2009 and 2008 he had a combined 11 sacks and 11 QB knockdowns). There’s also Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug inside, both of whom could wreak havoc. This will be a good first-week test for the Steelers.
Steelers Pass Rush vs. Titans Tackles
One of the best matchups in this contest will be how the left tackle/right tackle duo of Michael Roos and David Stewart hold up against the Steelers’ outside rushers. Roos earned our third-best pass blocking grade among tackles last season, while Stewart wasn’t quite that dominant, but proved to be above-average. With Harrison gone, most of the attention will fall on Lamarr Woodley, who no doubt wants to make amends for his disappointing 2012 campaign (only 26 total pressures, four of which were sacks). There’s also Jason Worilds, a former second-round pick like Woodley, but one who hasn’t come close to achieving the production of Woodley. Worilds will likely split time with first-round rookie Jarvis Jones. Jones mustered only a single QB knockdown and two hurries in 44 blitzes this preseason, but that’s not a great concern. Facing a pair of solid edge-protectors should be a concern for the Pittsburgh OLBs.
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