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Steelers vs. Titans: 10 Things Steelers Fans Should Watch for in Week 5

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIOctober 8, 2011

Steelers vs. Titans: 10 Things Steelers Fans Should Watch for in Week 5

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers play the Tennessee Titans in a contest that seems to indicate a level of truth in the lyrics of a classic and quirky Weird Al Yankovic song:

    "Everything you know is wrong!  Black is white, up is down, and short is long...."

    Both teams have been the opposite of words that described them in late August.

    Weren't the Titans considered an uncertain entity and the Steelers marked by many as a Super Bowl favorite? 

    Heading into Sunday's key affair at Heinz Field, it is the Titans who boast a league-leading defensive unit, and the Steelers lost in an identity crisis.

    Consider that the Steelers overcame a slew of injuries to win the Lamar Hunt Trophy and represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLV only months ago.

    Conversely, the Titans ended 2010 in meltdown fashion.  The antics of quarterback Vince Young and rapid descent in the standing by Tennessee (who began the season 5-2) were catalysts for change.   Jeff Fisher was removed from his rank as the NFL's most tenured head coach, and the offseason brought new faces. 

    Mike Munchak became the new coach, Matt Hasselbeck joined at quarterback weeks before the start of the regular season, and expectations were quite pedestrian for a squad that finished 6-10 last year. 

    So, common sense would indicate a clear win for the 'Burgh, right? 

    The young NFL season has seen many surprises.  The Titans are among the unexpected success stories, heading to Heinz Field with a 3-1 record.

    Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has been unable to run the ball or stop the run, trademarks of the practically patented "Steelers way."  These struggles are coming from a squad that returned nearly all of its starters on offense and defense to defend their AFC Championship.

    In a way, the Steelers struggles so far in 2011 can be summarized by another lyric from the aforementioned song:

    "...and everything that you have done which is so important doesn't matter!  Everything you know is wrong."

    In other words, the performances of these squads prove that last season is history, and the accomplishments of 2010 do not matter with respect to now.

    Currently, the Titans look to extend their surprise winning streak to four games, while the Steelers look to reclaim the swagger and pride of a champion and avoid a losing record.

    Will Tennessee bring their three wins and beat the city of Three Rivers?   Or, are the Men of Steel primed to send them back to Nashville with a Titan-ic letdown?

    Here are 10 things for Steelers fans to observe during this Sunday's pivotal AFC contest.

Who Are These Titans? And....Are They for Real?

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    The Titans are like the Bears and Giants.  There is a good side and a bad side.  A sort of Jekyll and Hyde that make them an interesting, albeit unpredictable, watch from week to week.

    With varying quality of gameplay in their four contests and radical roster changes, it's difficult to discern exactly where Tennessee stands.

    While three members of last year's secondary have stayed intact, the Titans now have Jordan Babineaux.  He is a promising young safety who returned an interception last week against the Browns for a 97-yard touchdown. 

    During the week, he commented that the Titans were not yet playing their best football, warning all to "watch out!"

    Still, is Jordan truly an answer in a secondary that struggled last season and sported so many of the same players in the defensive backfield? 

    Other faces have also changed in Tennessee.

    Barrett Ruud came to the Titans from Tampa Bay.  With the Buccaneers, Ruud played with energy and excitement.  With Pro Bowl numbers (despite no selection), he is a certain improvement at linebacker for Tennessee.

    Still, for that success comes a question mark with Shaun Smith, who was a mediocre talent with Kansas City and now starting in Nashville.

    The Titans offense has had similar change, further prompting confusion about the true caliber of the team.  Matt Hasselbeck leads an offense that found success early in 2010 as well.

    Sure, they are 3-1 today. 

    They were 5-2 in a campaign that finished with six wins last season.

    There is talent in place, but recent seasons have been rife with inconsistency.  It all begs one question:

    Who are these Titans?  A split personality?

    They looked superb in dominating wins over the Ravens and Browns.

    Yet, they lost to Jacksonville on opening day, and the Jaguars subsequently got blown out by the Jets and lost to Carolina.

    Likewise, they had to muster up their might at home in rallying fashion to narrowly defeat the Denver Broncos.

    Sure, their record is at 3-1, but it seems more fans are inquiring as to how good the Titans could be opposed to proclaiming it.

    Week 5 marks their first sure-fire road test against a team that has traditionally been of solid caliber but is currently struggling. 

    Are the Titans in column A or B?

    Depending on the nature of the outcome, a win or loss over the Steelers could reveal the real Tennessee Titans.

The Turnover Battle

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    Winning and losing in the NFL is largely dictated by the turnover battle.  Logic reigns supreme in the simplest of equations—teams that win the battle tend to win the game.

    Simple?

    For the Steelers, it's as simple as a 10-turnover deficit and a struggling start.  Naturally, the huge discrepancy was largely bolstered by giving away the football seven times in Baltimore on opening weekend.  Since the opener, Pittsburgh has still obtained only one turnover while giving the ball away four more times.

    Though skewed, their current pace is a minus-40 turnover ratio. 

    The Washington Redskins have the all-time record in turnover supremacy with a plus-43 differential.

    When your team is nearly as bad as the historical leaders were good, things need to change dramatically.

    Both sides of the ball share the blame.

    On offense, the line has failed to protect Roethlisberger while Ben has failed to protect the ball.  Additionally, ill-timed interceptions have cost the Steelers, nearly causing a 1-3 start considering a close game against the Colts.

    In fact, if not for the defense's lone forced fumble and subsequent touchdown by Troy Polamalu, the team would almost surely enter the fifth game of 2011 with a lone win.  The secondary is not getting interceptions, a significant portion of the blame due to the lack of pressure by the defensive front.

    Overall, improvement this season depends on rectifying this statistic. 

    Can hosting the Titans mark the first time this season that Pittsburgh wins the almighty turnover battle? 

Defensive Replacements

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    The Steelers deploy a number of different looks and schemes against opposing offenses, so it is difficult to call anybody a true replacement for another member of the defense.  After all, roles can change on any given play.

    Still, let's be real.  With James Harrison and Aaron Smith out of the lineup, Larry Foote and Brett Keisel have to play well against the Titans.

    Aaron Smith has been out of the lineup for much of the past two seasons, and the Steelers had continued to lead the league in rush defense despite the absence of his all-pro presence.

    Last week, the defensive end made a couple of critical tackles on Arian Foster, preventing additional damage done during a 155-yard rushing day.  For the line's lack of prowess, Smith seemed more polished than many of his line mates. 

    As such, it is worrisome to see him injured...again...again...again.

    Keisel has filled the void admirably in recent seasons.  Coming back from injury himself, Steelers fans must hope that the "Diesel" is ready to have the motor running. 

    Lawrence Timmons will need be adaptable with consideration to an orbital bone injury to James Harrison.  The aggressive linebacker's play is inspiration to his teammates, as he led the team in tackles last season. 

    So, who is replacing Timmons?  Larry Foote will fill the void at the inside linebacker position.  Foote's role will be critical on a defense that has struggled with fundamental in recent weeks.  Gap control is a must, especially against a running back with Chris Johnson's explosiveness and speed.

Chris Johnson Versus the Steelers' Struggling Run Defense

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    As mentioned in the last slide, gap control is a must. 

    On any given play, Chris Johnson can fulfill 70 percent of a 100-yard game.  His ability to pick up mass yardage on a single burst ranks at the top of his NFL class.  While he has struggled in 2011, Johnson played well in Cleveland, now looking to continue his success in another AFC North venue.

    Keeping Johnson contained is a matter of fundamentals that have been so routine in recent seasons—tackling, gap control and discipline.

    Avoiding over-pursuit, not giving up yards after first contact and plugging up holes were not Steelers strengths in Baltimore or Houston

    Like Arian Foster last week, Johnson is shifty in space and able to cut back and get around the tackles with relative ease.  The Steelers defense has to maintain control of the interior without compromising the ends.  Additionally, all elements of defense require the most basic defensive responsibility:

    Tackling. 

    It's easier said than done, but playing defense in the NFL is hard.  That's what makes the Steelers previous successes so special. 

    Casey Hampton:  Step up your game.

    Kiesel and Woodley:  Ready to stand tall?

    Linebackers: Are you ready to get back to being that mean, nasty defense of recent seasons?

    That will be required for the Steelers to stop Chris Johnson.  It is a fine test for a defensive front that needs a win to regain its swagger.

Can the Return of Max Starks Help the Pathetic Offensive Line?

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    Considering the play of Trai Essex, improving the left tackle of the offensive line is as simple as putting down some sand bags and hoping for the best.

    While this is an exaggeration, Max Starks should be able to at least replicate the disheartening play that Steelers fans have witnesses from the tackles in 2011.

    After all, let's be honest: would it really take much to be an improvement?

    With his experience, Starks could surprise and give the offensive line the charge it needs.  Many question if he can simply put on the pads and get back to playing at his normal quality.  This is doubtful.

    Nonetheless, Starks' presence goes beyond the football field. 

    In the huddle and along the sidelines, Starks can help facilitate the unit's growth.  With their poor play, having another pre-meltdown member of the unit returning can only be a benefit.

    Whether opening no holes for runners or exposing their quarterback to great harm, the Steelers offensive line has looked more like an offensive line graph mere milliseconds into every play, with various members of the group dominated in individual matchups. 

    The line play has been absolute chaos.  With the seventh ranked defense in the NFL entering Heinz Field, the unit has a chance to validate the Titans' newly discovered prowess or get back on track by exposing them as potential frauds.

    Let's hope for the latter! 

    With no real successes this season, any achievement or advancement in the line's play will be a huge stepping stone toward getting the season back on track.

The Continued Development of Antonio Brown

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    While many will watch to see electrifying gains by Mike Wallace, the intrigue surrounding the development of Antonio Brown should also capture the attention of Steelers' fans.

    During the Texans game, the quarterback and his young receiver were not on the same page.  Body language clearly demonstrated a few bad routes and missed adjustments by Brown, a receiver who really came into his own during the preseason. 

    Indeed, that was the preseason.  When it counted, he was struggling in a key game.

    Despite the early frustration, Brown bounced back in the second half, becoming a key target on the offense's lone touchdown drive and making key catches after halftime.

    How will Brown fare against the Titans?  Will he pick up where he left off late last week and help the offense stay on the field?

    Or, will he be plagued with the inconsistencies that many receivers suffer?

The AFC South Stigmas (Part 1 of 2): The Steelers Still Owe the Tennessee Titans

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    While the Steelers technically lead the all-time series between the franchises, nobody from Nashville would believe it.

    Upon moving from Houston and becoming the Titans, the fans at Adelphia Coliseum saw Steve McNair break the hearts of Steelers fans with frequency.  In 2000, the AFC Champion Titans delivered a final Central Division dagger into the heart of Pittsburgh.  With the Steelers leading 20-16 late in a game at Three Rivers Stadium, an injured McNair entered the game in place of a struggling Neil O'Donnell.

    Three passes later, the Titans led 23-20 en route to a win that dropped Pittsburgh to 0-3.  The Steelers would finish the year 9-7, narrowly missing the playoffs.  In that same season, McNair's late rally in Nashville gave the Titans another close win over the 'Burgh, 9-7.

    At the time, Tennessee had defeated Pittsburgh seven straight games.

    Since taking on the "Titans" name, the former Oilers have a 10-6 series edge over Pittsburgh, including a playoff victory and a 31-14 blowout win in 2008.  The lopsided affair determined home-field advantage in the AFC, though the Steelers would eventually host the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game after a Baltimore upset over Tennessee.

    Long after divisions were realigned with the Titans and Steelers since separated, Jeff Fisher would refer to the days leading up to a contest with Pittsburgh as "Steelers Week."  The passion in preparation for those games was a carryover from the aggressive rivalry between the clubs in the late 1990's.

    Sadly, the recent series has had a decidedly southern flavor.

    Pittsburgh has won the last two games between the clubs, but the Titans still remain one of two AFC South stigmas that the Steelers play in consecutive weeks.  Next week, part two will focus on the Jaguars.

    Loyal fans of Pittsburgh still recognize the Titans as a source of frustration for the Black and Gold...and while the rosters may have changed over the course of many years, the desire to get even is never tempered!

    From making jest of Tommy Maddox's nearly career-ending injury in 2002 to stomping on the Terrible Towel after their 2008 victory, fans realize the Titans franchise still deserves a few sharp jabs from some fists of steel.

Big Ben's Mobility

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    With his injured ankle and the poor play of his offensive line, glowing projections for Sunday don't shine on Ben Roethlisberger

    Currently, it would seem the quarterback is in for a three-hour circus.  To avoid another frustrating Sunday, the offensive line has to step up their game to give Ben time in the pocket.

    It simply must happen...or else.

    While improved line play is a team goal, there is no guarantee that the focus will translate to the field.  The only alternative is a faster delivery from Ben to his receivers.

    Almost assuredly limited with his mobility, the Steelers offense will likely look to include some quick reads to ensure quicker throws from a quarterback known for prolonging plays with his legs.

    Could this mean more opportunities for the normally targeted and recently unproductive Hines Ward?  Steelers fans must hope that the answer is a resounding "yes!"

    Otherwise, Steelers Country could be in for another afternoon of sacks, hurried throws and interceptions.

Hasselbeck vs. the Steelers Secondary

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    Imagine how differently the Texans game may have played out with the injury to Andre Johnson if the 2010 Steelers defense had played.  With Arian Foster contained, Houston would have surely struggled.

    Against the Titans, the Steelers defense looks to rewind the clock and stuff Chris Johnson.  If they can do that, the Tennessee passing game will carry the burden of offense on its shoulders.

    Then—and only then—will the loss of Kenny Britt really be felt.

    The Steelers secondary has played incredibly well in the past three weeks.  Despite his quarterback rating, Matt Schaub was held to under 150 yards passing and less then seven yards per attempt, an oddity during his stead in Houston.

    Against the Colts and Seahawks, quarterbacks struggled to find substantial gains against the Pittsburgh secondary.

    Ike Taylor has been glue against the top receivers to which he's been assigned, and he may quietly be the Steelers' top defensive player in the first quarter of the season.

    While the unit has been glittering, not everything is pure gold.

    Despite the play of Taylor and the solid work of both safeties, corners opposite of Taylor have struggled in pass coverage, a development that was evident early when Anquan Boldin caught a long touchdown against Bryant McFadden two minutes into the season. 

    Likewise, teams have found success with underneath routes to backs and tight ends.   Lastly, despite leading the league in total passing yards allowed, the unit only ranks a respectable 13th in opposing passer ratings.

    This statistic begs for trivia:  what AFC quarterback ranks second behind Tom Brady in passer rating?

    If you said Matt Schaub or Phillip Rivers...you are wrong!  The answer is Matt Hasselbeck.

    He has completed over 70 percent of his passes and thrown for 300 yards twice each.  He is averaging 8.7 yards per pass attempt with eight touchdowns and only three interceptions.

    More trivia?  During Hasselbeck's solid play, who is the Titans' leading receiver?

    Nate Washington.

    If that doesn't inspire the Steelers secondary to play well, what could?

Protecting the House: Playing Well at Home Is a Must

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    The Steelers 2011 season has begun with a lot of turmoil. 

    Injuries have been coupled with uncharacteristically bad play—including porous run defense, bogged offense, horrendous line play and more questions than answers.

    The team still clings to one source of pride that it can continue to defend on Sunday.

    Heinz Field. 

    Against two beatable opponents in Tennessee and Jacksonville, the Steelers must not take the importance of the next two games- or the opposition- lightly. 

    Against Seattle, the Steelers dominated to a 24-0 shutout win.  Indeed, they are undefeated at home.

    It may have only been one game, but with a 2-2 record, continuing the streak is vital.

    With so many unresolved struggles amidst a roster of champions, these soul searchers may have found some perfect soul food: home cooking.

    Returning to the comforts of home, the Steelers must step up their game.  The Titans seem to be the tougher of these next two Heinz Field foes, making Sunday's game all the more important.

    For all of their frustrations, the Steelers still have Heinz Field.

    Unlike other elements of their identity that have faded in early 2011, home field cannot slip away.

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