Well, football fans, it is finally here. The six-month void that we all must endure is over. The NFL has returned, and with it all the excitement and ceremony of the greatest sport in the world is back.
Neither the Steelers nor the Titans seem to be getting much in the way of positive press from the national media. Much of the Steelers lack of hype is due to the relative depth of the AFC North. The Steelers could be a very good team and still finish third this year against teams like the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals.
But those teams don't matter this week. What matters is the Titans are coming to town and bringing with them one of the most electric running backs in the NFL in Chris Johnson. The Titans also bring a punishing, physical defense and re-tooled offensive line.
Let's take a close look at what the Steelers must do this week if they want to beat the Titans.
Winning on first down will be vital. This is a team that for all the discussion about the passing offense is going to run the football.
But becoming predictable in their run selection has hurt this team in the past. The Titans defense is big and strong and will be ready to plug those lanes.
If the Steelers want to win on first down, they need to do so by extending the run game with properly used pass plays. There cannot be tremendous confidence in Isaac Redman as a primary back, so why not use the team's top weapons on the most important down?
Early in drives, the Steelers must use 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), and get as many of those athletic receivers on the field as possible. Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and either Markus Wheaton or Jerricho Cotchery on the field early puts the Titans defense on their heels.
The Steelers do a great job on first down play action, pulling the linebackers up and dragging a wide receiver in behind them. If the Titans don't bite, the back ends up in the shallow flat or the tight end runs a stop. Either way, the Steelers have options to get six or seven yards on first down, leaving much more manageable down and distance on second down.
If the Steelers are able to win on first down, they can open the playbook up on second down. This is where the Steelers can run a jet sweep out the shotgun or test the Titans corners deep on that deep post from the slot receiver.
One thing the Steelers cannot do is revert back to the old, run on first down, run on second down, throw on third down mentality. This will lead to the punter getting the game ball.
The key will be stopping running back Chris Johnson on first down. You can bet that the Titans are going to come out and try to get big chunks of yards on first down, giving Jake Locker a much more manageable second down.
Attacking the line of scrimmage will be key. The Titans have gone to great lengths to upgrade the talent on the offensive line, but there are still spots the Steelers should be able to exploit. The front line of Brett Keisel, Steve McLendon, and Ziggy Hood have played with excellent leverage this preseason. This has allowed Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu to fly to the football on run plays.
I cannot stress enough that the Steelers have to be aggressive in their defensive game plan. Playing off coverage and not choosing to blitz is going to make an average quarterback look great.
Locker is susceptible to pressure in his face, and that should play right to the strength of the Steelers defense. On passing downs, in the nickel I would send Timmons up the middle, or LaMarr Woodley on a twist every chance I got. Force him to make his hot read and try and check the football down.
Another key is how the Steelers handle the play-action pass when Locker rolls out. For all his faults, Locker is still a very athletic quarterback and is dangerous when he rolls to the edge and has a run/pass option. The Steelers will have to be disciplined on defense because if he can pull the defenders to the line of scrimmage expecting him to run, he can beat them over the top.
But ultimately, the plan is simple: Force Locker to beat them with his arm, from the pocket. Picking their spots to bring pressure, well-timed run blitzes and sound fundamentals on the back end is how the Steelers defense keeps the Titans out of the end zone.
Veteran running back Isaac Redman has been anointed as the starting running back this week, but I continue to maintain that LaRod Stephens-Howling is a better fit for what the Steelers want to do with the run game.
His ability to make one cut and get up field is tops among the Steelers running backs. Failing to do this was a big reason Jonathan Dwyer is no longer on the roster.
Watching this team in preseason it was clear that the days of the slow-developing run plays are over. The offensive line hasn't shown that they can maintain that power blocking scheme fans have grown accustomed to.
This blocking scheme and offensive line talent means making quick decisions when those small creases appear. This is a strength of Stephens-Howling, and I expect a few big runs from him on Sunday; particularly on that off-tackle play off the right side.
The role of Ryan Clark could be focused primarily as a deep coverage player on Sunday. The threat of the run is going to keep fellow safety Troy Polamalu up around the line of scrimmage for much of the game.
This means Clark is going to have to put on his enforcer hat and help out the Steelers cornerbacks.
Clark isn't an elite player in coverage, but he is a hammer. Titans wide receivers Kenny Britt and Nate Washington need to understand early if they make a catch, they are going to pay the price.
Creating even a moment of hesitation in the wide outs will go a long way toward a plan geared around stopping the run. Fortunately, what Clark averages in overall athletic ability he more than makes up for in intelligence and understanding of the scheme.
Titans cornerback Coty Sensabaugh is going to have his work cut out for him. Whether it's the veteran Jerricho Cotchery or the speedy rookie Markus Wheaton, this could be the matchup that the Steelers choose to exploit.
The Steelers love to use their slot receiver by putting them in motion to show coverage. If Sensabaugh is in man coverage on Wheaton, that shallow cross is going to be very hard to defend. It appeared in preseason the Titans ran a great deal of man coverage, so which the Steelers don't do a lot of shifts, they do like to pull their slot receiver across the formation.
This means Sensabaugh could be chasing even before the ball is snapped. Now that I think about it, the matchup between dime cornerback Tommie Campbell is going to have to be on point as well because he is going to draw either Cotchery or Wheaton as well.
Campbell lost his job as nickel corner in camp, and he and Sensabaugh could each have a bull's-eye on their chest as a potential advantage that Ben Roethlisberger can exploit.