On Thursday Night Football, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans will battle following a short week of preparation. In Week 5, the Black and Gold earned a hard-fought victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, while Nashville's "finest" proved to be anything but in a decisive 30-7 loss against the Vikings.
For the Steelers, last week's win provides reason for optimism, as the team can improve upon a 2-2 record for the season straight season. Victory would give them their first winning record of the campaign.
Conversely, the loss in Minnesota was a microcosm of Tennessee's early going, and many fans wonder if the Titans are indeed the NFL's worst team.
Despite their opponent's struggles, the Men of Steel cannot overlook a pesky AFC South foe that has traditionally played them tough. After all, Pittsburgh is 0-2 as the away team in 2012, and its struggles are well-documented over the past year. The Steelers hope that a trip to Nashville heals their road ailments.
To keep pace in the tough AFC North, the Steelers have to win the games that they should, and that mission starts on Thursday as favorites in the Music City.
Here are seven things for Steelers fans to watch for in Week 6!
Fill in the blank: CJ K.
Or, dare it be said, less than 1?
The Titans have struggled on the ground, and Pittsburgh needs to clamp down and ensure their issues continue. Tennessee hasn't scored a rushing touchdown in 2012, and Chris Johnson has averaged 2.9 yards per carry.
Hey, how about this for a nickname: CJ2.9YPC.
Too lengthy? Not quite memorable enough? Fine... But, I think we can safely forgo putting a "2" in the blank space above!
The Steelers defensive front did a generally good job of clamping down on Eagles' running back LeSean McCoy, preventing the long run and forcing "Shady" to pick up offense in hard-earned bits. Against the Titans, the defense will need once again need to show gap discipline in the run lines and contain the edge.
However, this week, the job (fingers crossed) should be a bit less challenging for a few reasons.
First, the threat of Michael Vick's athleticism is not a factor, allowing defenders in the box their roles more traditionally and without having to shadow an elite running passer.
Secondly, the Titans' offensive line, albeit decent with pass-blocking, has been a murky proposition at best blocking for the run. (Sound familiar, Steelers fans?)
Lastly, Chris Johnson is no LeSean McCoy. The latter isn't past his prime overnight, not gone complete bust.
Hitting the hole quickly and being elusive in space is one thing, but creating offense in the backfield requires a certain sensitivity by the running back. Here's the thing: a part of successful running starts with the back's eyes and "vision," a function that starts pre-snap and continues as the pigskin is being placed in his midsection.
In this way, I haven't been impressed by CJ. Still, it only takes one crease, one big run...
Ah, Mr. Matthew Hasselbeck.
Is his full name Matthew? Eh, who cares?!
I just remember him for his more endearing qualities: that bald head, his lackluster offensive showings against Pittsburgh (remember that beauteous 2007 shutout?) and all of that incessant whining during Super Bowl XL. If he flapped his arms in the air any more than he did, I might have thought him to be a full-blooded
Truth be told, there are few passers who I enjoy seeing get planted on their back more than the brother-in-law of one of the hottest TV personalities on daytime. "I wish I was Tim, I wish I was Tim!"
Eh, probably not...
Perhaps I'm not being biased. After all, against today's NFL passing attacks, isn't pressure the key?
Did I just say "attack?" Well, that may be overstating it, though the return (allegedly) of Kenny Britt can only infuse confidence in the Titans' passing game. So far, the lackluster nature of Tennessee's offense doesn't fall on pass-blocking. Titans passers have been sacked a total of eight times.
Still, with no pressure in his face, Hasselbeck is an experienced field general who can make a defense pay. See: Carson Palmer, Week 3.
Steve McLendon's time at nose tackle, replacing the inconsistent (to put it kindly) Casey Hampton created an extra surge up the middle against Philly and the team's renewed focus on getting pressure on the inside (or, was it just a renewed capability minus Big Slack... er, Snack!) was very effective. The Eagles' offensive line, which failed to appropriately pick up rushers all afternoon, also accounted for the pressure. Their left tackle was left with nobody to block more than once.
While the Steelers presence in the offensive backfield increased dramatically last week, the absence of Lamarr Woodley negates the resulting optimism a bit. At long last, the team had both outside linebackers on the field, James Harrison and Woodley.
Now, Woodley is out of the lineup, taking away some of the lateral stress the Titans' offensive line would have faced.
Last season, Ben Roethlisberger matched a career-high with five touchdown passes against the Titans, completing 24-of-34 passes and showing the aplomb of an elite NFL passer.
Tennessee has seen a few other fantastic field generals this season, though its secondary has struggled against the pass universally. So far, in 2012:
Tom Brady: 23 for 31, 236 yds, 2 TD
Philip Rivers: 24 of 32, 284 yds, 3 TD, INT
Matthew Stafford: 33 of 42, 278 yd, TD
Shaun Hill: 10 of 13, 172 yd, 2 TD
Matt Schaub: 20 of 28, 202 yd, 2 TD
Christian Ponder: 25 of 35, 258 yd, 2 TD, 2 INT
Though the numbers aren't glaring or record-setting, one thing that true students of the game notice about the list above is efficiency. In general, volume-driven statistics aren't those that best correlate to winning, whereas efficiency-based numbers do translate to wins.
Passers have attacked the Titans secondary with confidence, completing a high rate of attempts, minimizing turnovers and suffering few wasted opportunities. Part of the problem also falls back on a defensive front that has not gotten substantiated pressure.
Indeed, opposing passers have been very effective against Tennessee's secondary, which includes familiar faces, including corner Jason McCourty and safety Jordan Babineaux. One surprise player of the group has been Alterraun Verner, who has an interception and long fumble return for a touchdown. Still, the combined production from the group is suspect.
Roethlisberger hopes for another big game against the Titans. His odds will greatly increase if the offense can duplicate its success in another key area from the game last year... (next slide).
A huge part of the Steelers' rampant offensive success against the Titans last season resulted from their dual-threat offense. The running game served both as a defensive deterrent, disallowing Tennessee to focus their efforts on one element of the Pittsburgh game plan, and in setting up play-action passing.
Pittsburgh's ground game finished with 174 meaningful yards, and Ben Roethlisberger finished with five touchdowns on 34 attempts, a scoring rate of 13 percent. It's amazing how deadly any single throw can be against a defense that can't narrow its focus.
So, considering the Black and Gold had (by far) its best rushing game of the season last year, is this a "good news, good news" scenario?
Well, hopefully, it's good news times three! The Titans defense allowed 100-yard rushers in each of the first three weeks, and its surrendered 4.2 yards per run in five games.
Last weekend, Rashard Mendenhall's return was a huge lift to a ground game that averaed 2.9 yards per attempt in his absence, a number as paltry as Chris Johnson's anemic season to-date. The offensive line needs to continue to improve with run-blocking, though it's still notable that the loss of David DeCastro—the team's predetermined savior at guard—makes a notable difference.
Despite his penalties last week, Willie Colon really did show glimpses of great play, particularly with individual battles, dominating the man in front of him in the running game. If the offensive line (and Colon) can clean up their act on early downs, allowing the offense to stay ahead of the sticks and in manageable run downs, the rushing attack can have a huge impact against the Titans.
...by the fans in Nashville! However, Steelers Country will miss his presence immensely.
Without persecuting Ryan Mundy, hopefully he will be replaced by Will Allen, who deserves an opportunity and really can't do much worse than Mundy. Kindly, I will leave my thoughts on Mundy's performance limited to that statement.
Sadly, Pittsburgh will be absent Polamalu against a team that he has harassed. Fans will remember his "Superman" leap over the line, taking out quarterback Kerry Collins in 2010. Likewise, who can forget his one-handed snag of long bomb by Collins a year earlier?
OK, so maybe his herculean efforts were centered more around a man than an entire team. Still, the Titans won't miss his presence. Those plays are tattooed to their memories.
Troy isn't just a safety, and that's why his presence on defense correlates to a higher team winning percentage.
Minus Troy, the Steelers are missing a potential safety, corner or linebacker. They can't be as diverse in the roles ("hats") they place on the safety position, they lose the unbelievable closing speed that allowed No. 43 to break up plays that he had no business being near and, frankly, they are flat absent the intangibles that Polamalu possesses.
Let's face it: we're spoiled! We're going to place expectations on any replacement safety that are entirely unrealistic.
However, is it too much to ask for aptitude from Mundy or, hopefully, Allen? Here's hoping the latter gets his opportunity on the field. The Steelers need more aplomb from their backup safety spot.
After all, the team would be ridiculously stupid (a banal description, but a fitting one!) to attempt another premature return to the field for Polamalu. He should not return until his calf is truly and completely ready for action, no matter the on-field circumstances.
The club lolly gagged in their treatment of Big Ben last season, putting him at unnecessary risk that impacted his health and performance when games truly mattered.
A little help here and now isn't worth the cost of the complete player later, no matter the implications on the season.
Kenny Britt is slated to return to action Sunday, though nobody is quite sure how game-ready his injured ankle will be. He did not participate in practice as recently as Monday, and he was listed as questionable.
Either way, Britt's presence commands attention from Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, who will face the dinged wideout and his counterpart, Nate Washington.
You all remember him, right?
Washington has had as few as 20 yards and as many as 110 yards receiving this season, his best performance coming in an impressive showing against the Detroit Lions. Truth be told, outside of that game, Nate has been pedestrian at best in 2012.
Though those two receivers command the bulk of the hype, receiver Kendall Wright and tight end Jared Cook have been the two most targeted and productive pass recipients. However, it should be noted that Wright, despite leading the team with 27 receptions, has averaged a mere 7.9 yards per grab. That helps as it concerns first downs, but the Steelers will gladly surrender modest yardage to Wright in exchange for shutting down the Titans' alleged playmakers.
Lewis and Taylor haven't lit the world on fire, either, so it will be interesting to see which group has the edge. My nod goes to the Steelers secondary, which ranks among the best in the game when the defensive front is able to get even modest pressure.
With two games facing the Men of Steel between themselves and a return to Heinz Field, now is the time for improved road play. After all, a win in Nashville would give Pittsburgh, at the very least, an opportunity to pass the Bengals in the standings one week later.
However, a loss to the Titans will put mounds of pressure on the team against their division rivals from Western Ohio, as well as extend the stigma of the Steelers as a squad that can't put together a victorious effort away from home.
Penalties, mental mistakes and generally helter-skelter play all-around has been a bane to the 'Burgh. With two chances to get back in good standing as nomads, the first one is the easiest win to attain.
Honestly, the Steelers are a better team than the Titans. This is a game that they should win.
Whether they actually do will go a long way toward determining if "the real Steelers are ready to stand up" or if their homesick duplicates will inevitably fall down. Right now, the Men of Steel are 0-2 away from Pittsburgh.
To make the playoffs or (gasp!) win the division, a goal that is not too big for this team if it focuses, the Steelers need to at least improve that record to 4-4.