The Tennessee Titans are 1-4, and the record is indicative of just how much they've been struggling this season. But the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot take them lightly on Thursday night, lest they find themselves with a surprising loss, much as they did in Week 3 against the Oakland Raiders.
The Titans offense ranks 26th in the league in points per game, 30th in rushing yards per game and 16th in passing yards per game, while their defense is giving up 144.2 rushing yards and 279.6 passing yards per game. An easy out for the Steelers, right?
At the very least, the 2012 season thus far hasn't been kind to the Steelers on the road. In away games, they are 0-2. If the Steelers want to get their first road win—and a convincing one at that—they need the right components in place at the right time.
Here's a three-step game plan for how Pittsburgh can get the better of the Titans on Thursday.
A Full-Scale Offensive Assault
In all five of the Titans' games this season, they've given up 30 or more points to their opponents; in fact, at 36.2 points per game allowed, they have the worst scoring defense in the league. The Steelers have put up 30 points just once in their previous four games, but this week they could easily have a shot at 40, as long as they execute well.
The Steelers offense hasn't been particularly explosive thus far. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's longest pass is 37 yards, and he's thrown for more than 300 yards just once. Of course, the Steelers offense is one that is more about efficiency than explosiveness—the point is to make the most out of every yard gained, rather than trying to gain the most yards.
The Titans secondary hasn't been particularly sharp thus far this season outside of cornerback Alterraun Verner, who has yet to give up a touchdown and has a pick-six to his name. Fellow corners Jason McCourty and Ryan Mouton are allowing receptions on 75 percent and 70.8 percent of their targets, respectively, for a combined 345 yards and three touchdowns.
Pittsburgh has more playmakers on offense than the Titans defense has play-stoppers, especially in the passing game. While Verner might hold down Antonio Brown or Mike Wallace to few receptions and yards, the other corners simply don't have what it takes to control the receivers Verner isn't responsible for. This Titans secondary presents ample opportunity for Roethlisberger go to deep, successfully.
What will also aid that effort is a better run game. It received a noticeable boost last week against the Philadelphia Eagles with the return of Rashard Mendenhall. Prior to Week 5, the Steelers were relying on backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to carry the load, and they clearly struggled.
Redman averaged 2.5 yards per carry during that period, and Dwyer 2.9. Mendenhall, in contrast, put up 81 yards on 14 touches, a 5.8 yards-per-carry average. With better, more successful running, Roethlisberger can then pull off play-action passes with more regularity, and that's an area in which he's especially deadly to opposing defenses.
Running well and passing well are both very real possibilities for the Steelers this Thursday. Once they get into a rhythm, it would be smart to not let off the gas—the faster and more unrelenting the assault on Tennessee's defense, the better. Roethlisberger and company have every tool at their disposal to completely wear down the Titans.
It's Not What Chris Johnson Has Done—It's What He Can Do
Call him what you want—CJNoK, CJ2.9YPC, whatever—but Titans running back Chris Johnson's 2,006 rushing yards in 2009 (and his not-so-shabby 1,364 in 2010) was no fluke, and if the Steelers underestimate him, chances are he will make them pay.
The Steelers have the 11th-ranked run defense this year, giving up just 95.2 rushing yards per game. However, they rank just 20th in rushing first downs allowed per game at six and 16th in yards per rush attempt at 4.1. It's more that opposing offenses aren't running the ball a lot against the Steelers than that they are particularly strong at stopping the run this year.
Opposing defenses have been able to key in on Johnson's biggest strength and neutralize it, the main reason why he's had such a disappointing season thus far and why his 2011 numbers weren't close to their 2009 peak.
Johnson isn't a bruiser—he won't run anyone over—but he's a skilled home-run hitter. If he can find the hole, he'll exploit it, and he can easily take off for a 20-, 40- or 80-yard run if given the chance.
The Steelers have had some issues with containment this season. They gave up a 22-yard run to Tim Tebow when they faced the New York Jets in Week 2 and a 64-yard touchdown run to the Oakland Raiders' Darren McFadden in Week 3.
It's not as though the Steelers defense is being slashed by the run game play after play, week after week, but they are vulnerable to giving up a big run. They'll need to keep Johnson fully contained on Thursday, leaving him little room to run.
This is where safety Troy Polamalu's absence could really hurt the Steelers. Polamalu's early-season calf injury is back, apparently worse than before, and he's not playing this week as a result. We all know what kind of an impact Polamalu makes when he's on the field and what the Steelers lack when he's not, and this week, he could be the perfect person to hold Johnson back.
Neither Ryan Mundy nor Will Allen are ideal fill-ins for Polamalu. While Allen has more run game experience, he's played just two snaps this year and hasn't been a full-fledged starter since 2009. Mundy's an even bigger liability when it comes to stopping the run, and he probably cannot contribute much to the run defense's efforts.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons will play a huge role in stopping Johnson, as will tackling-leader Larry Foote. James Harrison, who played every defensive snap in his return to regular-season action last week, will also play a part in containing Johnson, as should Jason Worilds.
Worilds should be the starter in place of LaMarr Woodley, who is out with a hamstring injury. Thus far this season, he's performed better in run defense, coverage and pass rush than Chris Carter, the Steelers' other backup linebacker who has seen a fair number of snaps this season.
Johnson knows how to exploit lapses in opposing defenses—that's basically his biggest strength. If the Steelers give him an inch, he'll take a yard, and if they give him a yard, he may just take the whole field. He cannot be underestimated simply because he's been underperforming.
Pass Rush, With Feeling
The Steelers' ability to rush quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (who is starting in place of the injured Jake Locker) will be under serious scrutiny on Thursday with Woodley and Polamalu out. That means that on top of keeping Johnson contained, all manner of Steelers linebackers and defensive linemen must also step up their games if they want to successfully pressure Hasselbeck.
So far this season, Hasselbeck and Locker have been sacked a total of eight times for a loss of 53 yards. Though pressure would certainly be more effective in forcing mistakes from second-year quarterback Locker, they simply cannot back off of Hasselbeck, because he's a veteran experienced in the ways of the Steelers pass rush.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's scheme has been deciphered twice already this year, by two quarterbacks well-versed in his tactics—Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. As such, he's focusing far more on disguising his rushes and blitzes this week in preparation for Hasselbeck.
This means not tipping their hand too soon. The Steelers have realized over the years that the best way to keep opposing quarterbacks guessing is to study and internalize just when they plan on snapping the ball and not giving anything away in the moments leading up to it. That timing will be key this week, and will serve to mitigate some of the disadvantages the unit has without Woodley and Polamalu on the field.
Harrison had an acceptable first game back last week, with two tackles, three quarterback hits and one hurry. He held up well with a full workload and should be ascribed even more responsibility this week.
Harrison could have inflicted even more pain last week against the Eagles, if his comments on Monday are to be believed—Harrison said that he went easy on Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick in fear of the fines he could have been levied by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell if he had gone in on him at full speed and full force.
It's admirable that finally the system of discipline and fines in the league has mellowed Harrison's bloodthirsty nature, but he must strike a balance. There are, after all, ways to pressure and hit quarterbacks that do not draw fines—it's just about internalizing the proper timing and technique.
With Woodley and Polamalu out, the Steelers need the Harrison of old to shine through brighter than this new, "kindler, gentler" iteration. The Steelers cornerbacks have been burned time and time again by opposing quarterbacks and receivers, so the faster and more often they can prevent a pass being thrown, the better.