The Pittsburgh Steelers head to Tennessee to take on the Titans for Thursday Night Football on the NFL Network.
The Steelers (2-2) come into the game looking more like an infirmary unit than a football team. With Troy Polamalu out, the defense will struggle—at least more than usual—to get stops. On offense, the line has rarely protected Ben Roethlisberger as well as he may have liked in the past, but 2012 might be his worst crop yet.
The Titans (1-4) have been treading water for years, but finally look like they may be sinking. If they aren't careful, the Steelers could put them away for good. The Titans offense looks terrible on every level, and their defense—once feared—is starting to fade as well. Once their best player, Chris Johnson has been completely ineffective.
So, who will win this Thursday night contest?
Key Storyline No. 1: Are the Steelers For Real?
A quarter through the season, it's fair to ask: Are the Steelers contenders or pretenders? For years, that question seemed silly, as they had a defense stocked with All-Pros and an offense able to score on anyone.
Now, at 2-2, it's a lot harder to consider them among the NFL's elite.
Earlier this year, I dispelled the notion that the Steelers, as a team, were getting old. Instead, the problem is that their cornerstone is crumbling. The players they count on are getting older and older, and they haven't necessarily drafted well enough to replace the studs that they're losing.
The Steelers are not longer feared like they once were, but do they have enough talent left in the cupboard to make another playoff run?
Putting away the Titans convincingly would go a long way to proving that the Steelers are not done yet.
Key Storyline No. 2: Is Chris Johnson Done?
Speaking of closing windows...
"CJ.5K" hasn't been great this season; he hasn't even been good. Calling Johnson average would be an insult to all the less-talented individuals who are actually trying to remain in the NFL. Yes, his blocking stinks. No, that doesn't mean Johnson doesn't stink as well.
Johnson's only good game this season was against the Texans, when he picked up 141 meaningless yards as Houston routed the Titans. If only Johnson could convince every team not to care in a similar fashion!
Every sign points to Johnson being done, but the Titans don't have any other options. They'll need to continue to throw him out there and hope for the best. The Steelers still have a great rushing defense and could embarrass Johnson on Thursday night.
Keys for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Offense
Protection is the biggest key, but—failing that—it is just as important for Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball. For that, the Steelers need to focus on running shorter routes and letting their receivers pick up yards after the catch.
Rashard Mendenhall is also a big key to that protection and the game as a whole. Tennessee is giving up 4.2 yards per carry this season, and Mendenhall looks healthy enough to take advantage of that. If he can get going on the ground, the Titans' pass rush will be completely neutralized.
Keys for the Tennessee Titans on Offense
Luck? Can luck be a key?
Kidding aside, the Titans have had serious trouble moving the ball this season and have little chance with Matt Hasselbeck under center. The veteran QB has seen better days and doesn't look to have the arm strength or deep accuracy to take advantage of the Steelers' safety issues.
That being said, the Titans have to take their shots deep with Polamalu out. Their offensive tackles are the lone bright spots (perhaps on the entire team). Even if Hasselbeck misses deep a dozen times, hitting Kenny Britt or Jared Cook a handful of occasions over the top could be the difference.
Keys for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Defense
Step one is dominating in the trenches. That defensive line has struggled, but it should be able to press the middle of the Titans offensive line and force their tackles to operate on an island against the Steelers pass-rushers.
Pittsburgh can't control who's injured, but it can mask Polamalu's absence by not giving Hasselbeck time to throw deep. Keeping him on the run by collapsing the pocket gives the best chance to completely shut him down.
Forget coverage sacks, the Steelers need to be on him immediately after the snap.
Keys for the Tennessee Titans on Defense
A pass rush should be the key here as well, but Roethlisberger is too good on the run for that to really matter. The Titans will force him to move, but that won't mean their job is over.
When Roethlisberger is forced out of his pocket, the Titans need to continue to play defense. So often, the Steelers get big yardage when things break down and their creative play beats the opponents' ability to adjust.
In all honesty, Big Ben should just be drawing passing routes in the dirt.
If the Titans defense can play whistle-to-whistle, they will throw off the Steelers' passing game. Against the run, however, they will need more of that luck or—at least—a fantastic performance from a bunch of guys that have yet to turn in such a performance in 2012.
Bold Prediction No. 1: Roethlisberger will Throw for Over 300 Yards
As said above, the Titans haven't stopped anyone yet, and Roethlisberger might have his best game of the season against them.
It isn't so much a question of scheme or matchup. Instead, it's almost more dependent on which team will do what it takes to succeed. The Titans seem to have a lot of "give up" in them this season, and the Steelers offense has a history of producing backbreaking first downs when it looks like they've been bottled up.
If the headline Friday morning is, "The Steelers Are Back," the passing performance will be a big reason why.
Bold Prediction No. 2: Chris Johnson will Rush for Over 100 Yards in Another Loss
Like the Texans game, expect this to get out of hand early.
Up by a couple of scores, the Steelers will rotate a little more heavily, and Dick LeBeau will start packing up the run blitzes for use on another day. If the headline on Friday morning is, "Chris Johnson Is Back," it will be because he piled up a huge rushing total when it didn't matter.
Player of the Game Prediction: Ben Roethlisberger
Other options include Antonio Brown, Mendenhall or Lawrence Timmons, who should all have fantastic days. However, if Roethlisberger puts up the passing total he's capable of, he should win this honor walking away.
Final Score Prediction: Steelers 28, Titans 13
The Titans will put up a fight for as long as possible, but things will fall apart after halftime as the Steelers pull away.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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