Wednesday, October 10, 2012


You don't have to look too far back into the annals of NFL history to find that the Tennessee Titans (once the Houston Oilers) and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a tremendous history. In fact, no other game may have been more responsible for the argument for and advent of Instant Replay than the 1979 AFC Championship between the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Late in the third quarter and trailing 17-10, the Oilers went on a drive to survive. Oilers QB Dan Pastorini hit speedy receiver Mike Renfro in the back corner of the end zone. The play happened so fast that it seemed obvious Renfro had failed to get a second foot down, but upon replay, it appeared he scraped his second foot and controlled the ball before he left the field of play. The missed call had a devastating repercussion on the game's result.  The Oilers had to settle for a field goal instead and the Steelers once again defeated their mighty rivals.
Flash forward to the new era and October of last year. The Titans visited a Steelers team minus the services of Rashard Mendenhall due to a hamstring injury, and Ben Rthlisberger was on a bad ankle.  Jonathan Dwyer filled in and delivered a 100-yards rushing, while Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes. Matt Hasselbeck and Chris Johnson started for Tennessee, who again was without the services of Kenny Britt. Hasselbeck managed a touchdown and interception, and Johnson managed just 51 yards on the ground with a touchdown.  Is the outcome of this game likely to be different than the 38-17 game last season?

The last three games against the Steelers have left Titans QBs
scratching their heads.
Well, it's possible but unlikely.  The Steelers have won the last three games against the Titans, forcing 10 turnovers.  Matt Hasselbeck has a 1-2 record against the Steelers in the regular season, completing just 56 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Chris Johnson averages 3.46 yards per carry against Pittsburgh, and has two scores. However, with Johnson's current plummet off the yards per carry cliff, can we expect him to deliver his 4.76 career yards per carry average at home against the Steelers eleventh-ranked rush defense? For the Titans to win, at some point they'll have to successfully run the ball. After all, the Steelers pass defense is third best in the NFL, giving up 184 yards per game. Though Lamar Woodley is likely to miss Thursday's game, Woodley isn't nearly the impact player James Harrison is, and Harrison's plenty healthy right now. So with Matt Hasselbeck on the downward side of his career, Tennessee would prefer to run the football. Next, the Steelers passing offense is ranked third, and will test the heck out of this Tennessee team giving up 279 yards per game. And if you think the Titans passing defense is creaky, then their rushing defense is a rusty hinge, yielding 144 yards per contest.

I think the Steelers will run a lot this game, even with their patchwork offensive line. Tennessee's LB Akeem Ayers is the only guy they have to worry about, as he is ranked fourth in tackles in the NFL. Linebacker Colin McCarthy still is fighting through his ankle injury and if he plays he'll be less than 100 percent. On four days rest, Mendenhall will likely cede some extra carries to Jonathan Dwyer, who based on last year's performance will get second billing. Isaac Redman will handle goal line duties and I expect his number called at least once for a short TD. Mendenhall will garner at least 12 carries with Dwyer picking up another 5-7 and Redman with 3-4 as well. If the Steelers can get some rushing yards, they can move to play-action, and isolating man-to-man coverage. Then, look out for Mike Wallace deep. I think it's his day to take one deep to the house, so anticipate 110 yards and a touchdown. Hines Ward had his best game against Tennessee last year, so I expect Antonio Brown to get at least 10 targets and another 85 yards. The Titans are prime fodder for tight ends this year, having giving up seven passing touchdowns to tight ends. Heath Miller is a decent start, and I like him for another five grabs for 45 yards with a score. Taper expectations on fantastic numbers though, as the four day break has definitely hindered scoring. Roethlisberger should give you around 275 yards passing, two TDs and an interception.

As for Tennessee, even though I think Mike Munjack would like to run, this game will be all about relying on the veteran Matt Hasselbeck. Last week Hasselbeck attempted 43 passes, probably because when you're down 23-0 in the third quarter, you're likely to give up running the football. Tennessee simply can't afford to fall behind in this one. So look for Kendall Wright and Jared Cook to be locked in early. The wild card is Britt, who practiced fully Tuesday and is expected to return. In two games against the Steelers he's averaged 4.5 catches and 63 yards. If he's out there, I think he makes a good play. Steelers corner Ike Taylor has had his share of issues again, and against a receiver like Britt seems primed to commit pass interference. Thus Britt will get his share of targets unless he has a setback. His presence alone will add to Kendall Wright's value, and he's worth a flex play if you're desperate. Your best bet is to play Jared Cook, as the Steelers have allowed three tight ends to score in their first four games. With Troy Polamalu out again, either Ryan Mundy or Larry Foote is likely to pick him up in coverage and both are substandard. Both Mundy and Foote gave up touchdowns in the Philadelphia game. Cook ends up with 80-100 yards and a score.

Since the Oilers moved to Nashville, the Steelers have won just twice, going 2-7 in Tennessee. However, this a prime time matchup, and Ben Roethlisberger is 23-7 in October and 6-1 on Thursday night games, I'm taking the Steelers to swing the momentum enough to cover on Thursday night in Tennessee.