The game may be even tougher given the Steelers' injury issues. Both the offensive and defensive lines are decimated, further complicating the problems they have in protecting Ben Roethlisberger and stopping the run.
Chris Kemoeatu’s knee continues to be a hindrance meaning that Doug Legursky would take his spot and Ramon Foster would move to right guard.
Aaron Smith will miss this week as Brett Keisel finally returns to the lineup. Ziggy Hood will get the start in place of Smith.
The injuries are not limited to the lines, either. James Harrison will be out for several weeks, and his top backup, Jason Worilds, is also ruled out for Sunday.
Lawrence Timmons will slide outside, and Larry Foote will take over the job at inside linebacker.
This will complicate matters, as James Farrior has frequently been spelled by Foote. Instead, Stevenson Sylvester may have to answer the call.
There are still some questions as to Rashard Mendenhall’s status, and while Roethlisberger will play, his mobility will be limited with his foot injury.
All of these issues, combined with the fact that Tennessee has played very well this season, has stacked the deck against Pittsburgh.
It is early in the year, but the Steelers need to get a win at home to avoid a potential downward spiral.
Here are the keys to getting a victory Sunday against the Titans.
First and foremost, the Steelers must stop Chris Johnson. Last week, Arian Foster shredded Pittsburgh’s defense and Johnson could do the same.
The problem is that if Johnson finds a hole in the defense, he will be gone for a score, and Ike Taylor recognizes this.
“He has unbelievable speed, something you can’t coach,” said Taylor. “With him, a play is never over with because of what he can do. With him, you have to be on key at all times.”
On key is something that Pittsburgh’s defense has not been this season. They have taken poor angles, missed tackles and have been blown off the ball.
Keisel has a real simple solution.
“We all have to be gap-sound and play team ball,” said Keisel.
As easy as that sounds, and as easy as the Steelers usually make it look, it has been something that has been missing this season.
Hood, who will start at left defensive end, will have to improve his play against the run, and Cameron Heyward will likely see a lot of action substituting in for both Hood and Keisel, who is just returning from an injury.
Currently sitting at 22nd in the NFL against the run, allowing a very disappointing 4.8 yards per carry, the Steelers want to turn things around starting this week.
“We have a lot of pride with our run defense and it hasn’t been up to par to this point,” said Keisel. “We definitely need to get that turned around if we want to win games.”
Just last season, Pittsburgh ended Johnson’s 100-yard game streak at 12. Their suffocating run defense held him to only 34 yards on 16 carries.
That is the dominating performance that they want to get back to. Johnson is currently averaging 2.2 yards per carry.
Last week, the Steelers lost the turnover battle again and find themselves at -10 for the season.
This is unacceptable and one of the major reasons why the Steelers are sitting at 2-2 right now.
While protecting the football is important, evident in the team’s performance so far, Pittsburgh also needs to start forcing turnovers.
Pittsburgh is without an interception this season and has not forced fumbles like they did last year.
The lack of pressure that the defense has put on the opposing quarterback is the key here.
If you look at the Steelers, their offense is constantly pressured and is constantly turning the ball over.
Opposing quarterbacks have had plenty of time and have not been forced into mistakes. It will be difficult to change this trend this week with all of the injuries.
The hope will be that Timmons can inject some pressure from the outside along with Woodley. It is possible that James Harrison’s injury has slowed him, and two healthy players on the outside could be the difference, and Timmons is ready to make that difference.
“You get an opportunity to rush the passer more outside, so that’s a good thing. Inside, you get more tackles; outside, you get an opportunity to get more sacks. I like sacks. I will take this as a great opportunity for me.”
The combination of recovering from a neck injury and being out of shape has kept Max Starks unsigned until this week.
Now, with less than a week of practice, the Steelers need to insert Starks into the starting lineup.
As he took over 60 percent of the starting snaps at left tackle on Thursday, signs point to Starks getting that opportunity.
"The biggest thing is to make sure I have everything down pat, working and communicating fluidly with the rest of the guys," Starks said. "Hopefully, Sunday I have that opportunity to (start)."
Jonathan Scott will be coming off of an injury, and Trai Essex is, well, Trai Essex.
Expecting Starks to come in and perform at a high level would be a bit much, but asking him to be an improvement at left tackle is not.
A blocking dummy could be an upgrade.
Roethlisberger has wanted Starks back since camp, wearing his No. 78 jersey to practice one day, and now, he got his man back.
Hopefully his man can get his back on Sunday.
Isaac Redman will at the very least see more playing time this week, if not a start, in place of Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenhall left last week’s game with an injury, and it was not much of a loss, as he danced his way to no gains more often than not.
That is not Redman’s style.
“You can’t do too much dancing in the backfield,” said Redman. “That is how we lose yards. I would rather have a zero-yard run than a loss.”
Talk about a not-so-subtle dig at Mendenhall. Then again, nothing he said was false.
Mendenhall is a great back when he has great blockers in front of him. If not, he does not create his own yardage.
Redman will. He is a straight forward runner who loves contact and can carry defenders, and he should get a chance on Sunday.
Lawrence Timmons could have been an outside linebacker in the Steelers system, but he ended up on the inside.
He will get a chance on the outside again Sunday and will be expected to create.
Tennessee has a non-mobile quarterback with Matt Hasselbeck. This is the type that the Steelers should feast on, but haven’t.
Timmons will need to inject some energy into the pass rush and actually get to the quarterback, all while not over-pursuing against the run.
There are few players as athletic as Timmons, and he needs to come up big on Sunday.
- Pittsburgh is in their third of four consecutive games against AFC South opponents.
- The Steelers are 4-5 all-time at home against AFC South opponents.
- Pittsburgh leads the all-time series against the Titans 43-20, including 25-10 at home.
- Last year, the Steelers defeated the Titans 19-11 in Tennessee.
- Pittsburgh’s defense has given up less than 150 passing yards in three consecutive games.
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