Steelers-Titans: Thursday Night Football Preview and Prediction

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Steelers-Titans: Thursday Night Football Preview and Prediction
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In case football fans needed anything else to get them warmed up for the 2009 season, Miami and Florida State engaged in an epic battle last night that came down to the final play.

The U ended up stealing one at Doak Campbell Stadium—and, by the way, did anyone else come away really impressed with Graig Cooper?—putting an exciting capper on a solid first week of college football action.

This week, the big boys get added to the football queue, with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans kicking off the 2009 NFL season on Thursday night.

Tell me that you aren’t just a little more excited this Tuesday than you’ve been on Tuesdays over the past few months. A little over 48 hours; that’s all we have to wait.

Before we delve into any matchups, here are all of the particulars that you need to know for the Steelers-Titans NFL season opener, courtesy of our MSF NFL Week One Preview and TV Schedule:

 

Tennessee Titans (0-0) at Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0)

(Note: the low prices cited about for tickets are as of Tuesday, Sept. 8. This could obviously change between now and gameday.)

So, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about what to watch for and see if we can tease out a prediction that we feel comfortable with.

First, let’s take a quick look at how these teams compared statistically in 2008 (all Titans-Steelers stats courtesy of NFL.com):

  • Total Offense: Tennessee—313.6 (21st) | Pittsburgh—311.9 (22nd)
  • Rushing O: Tennessee—137.4 (7th) | Pittsburgh—104.6 (23rd)
  • Passing O: Tennessee—176.2 (27th) | Pittsburgh—206.3 (17th)
  • Total Defense: Tennessee—293.6 (7th) | Pittsburgh—237.2 (1st)
  • Rushing D: Tennessee—93.9 (6th) | Pittsburgh—80.2 (2nd)
  • Passing D: Tennessee—199.8 (9th) | Pittsburgh—156.9 (1st)

Quite obviously we can see that these two teams were led by their defenses in 2008. So you would think that their one matchup was probably pretty low scoring, right?

That the Titans’ vaunted 1-2 rushing punch of Chris Johnson and LenDale White probably struggled mightily against the 3.3 yard per carry average the Steelers’ D held opponents to last year?

Well, that’s not quite what happened. The Titans won their Week 16 matchup against the Steelers last year 31-14 on their way to the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC playoffs. Chris Johnson and LenDale White carried 31 times for 117 yards (3.8 yard average) and scored two TDs.

So while the Steelers did hold the Titans to 20 yards below their season average rushing the ball, the Titans were effective enough on the ground to win.

If you just looked at the stats, without knowing the outcome, you might actually think Pittsburgh won the game. The time of possession was even, Pittsburgh out-gained Tennessee 374-322, and Pittsburgh converted 46 percent of their third downs compared to only 21 percent for Tennessee.

So what the hell happened?

As is often the case in the NFL: turnovers.

Ben Roethlisberger threw two INTs and also fumbled four times, losing two of them. Tennessee, on the other hand, did not turn the ball over once. Add to that the fact that Pittsburgh carried the ball 25 times for 73 yards, and it balances the scales a bit and makes the Titans’ romp (21-7 in the second half) a little more understandable.

But as we all know, the Titans flamed out in the playoffs while the Steelers righted the ship and did not lose again, all the way through the Super Bowl.

What can we expect this year between the Titans and Steelers in their regular season matchup? I think it will be a game very similar to last year, except that that the Steelers will be more protective of the ball, will be at home, and will squeeze out a victory as they begin their defense of Super Bowl No. 6.

A couple quick reasons why I think the Steelers will win:

Ben Roethlisberger has had another hellish offseason, no doubt wants to put it all behind him, and just start making plays on Sunday again.  The Titans present a formidable matchup, as they are still very sound defensively, even without Albert Haynesworth, but I don’t think Ben turns the ball over four times.

Heinz Field is not an easy to place to come into and steal a win.  The Steelers were 6-2 at home last year with their losses coming to the Giants and Colts. On Thursday night, I think Heinz Field will be an especially tough place to play.

The towels will be waving, the energy level will be extra high, and the Steelers will no doubt be immensely fired up to begin their title defense. I have a lot of faith in Mike Tomlin, despite my hatred for the Steelers, and am not picking against him and the Steelers at home in the team’s first game since winning the Super Bowl.

Willie Parker’s yard per carry average has dropped each of the last three seasons, plummeting all the way to 3.8 yards per carry last season. He does, however, usually play well in the first game of the season, or in his first game after a long break.

Case in point: last year Willie Parker had 138 yards on 25 attempts in Week One against Houston. He followed that up with 105 yards on 28 attempts against the Browns. Then he got hurt, missed four games, and over his next two starts carried the ball 46 times for 185 yards.

Clearly, Parker is at a stage in his career where he gets worn down when used consistently. The Steelers have already said they will use Rashard Mendenhall more to spell Parker, plus it’s only Week One...so he can’t worn out yet.

Contrary to what happened in Week 16 last year, I think a fresh Willie Parker allows the Steelers to run the ball for better than a 2.9 yard average this year.

Also, I think the Titans will struggle to clear the 100 yard mark on the ground Thursday night. I have Chris Johnson in a bunch of fantasy leagues, so I hope I’m wrong, but that Steelers' D is going to be fired up and ready to make a statement that their dominance of 2008 will continue in 2009.

Teams will have to wait until later in the season, when the Steelers are a little bit beaten up, to get any traction on the ground.

And while the Titans brought in former Steeler Nate Washington to provide a deep threat, the Titans WRs and Kerry Collins’ ancient arm do not inspire me.

I do think that this will be a close, hard-fought game all the way through. However, the fourth quarter will be owned by Pittsburgh; I think Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu will come through big plays late (like they always seem to), and the Steelers will pull away down the stretch. 

If I were a betting man, I’d take the Steelers and give the points. I’m not, so I’ll just sit back Thursday night and enjoy the first game of what should be another awesome 17 weeks of regular season NFL football.

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