The beginning of the season is always the hardest time to predict games. Generally, you haven’t seen much of the starting squad, players have changed during the off-season that make it hard to predict how teams will play.
Coming into this season, and off what can only be called a mediocre season, the Steelers have plenty of questions to answer, but I will get to that in a moment.
What I want to do is give you, dear reader, a look inside each game before it is played. I want to give you things to watch for (W2W4, or What To Watch For), as well as things to worry about (Concerns), and things that seem to be okay with the team (We’re Fine).
On top of that, I want to check the opposition for the week and give you some things from the history book or the stat line that might help you while watching the game (Know Thine Enemy).
Comments are welcome, of course, and I will do my best to reply.
Know Thine Enemy
In week one of this season, the Steelers will open at home against the Tennessee Titans.
This will be the 76th meeting of these two franchises dating back to when the Titans were the Houston Oilers. It’s been a mixed bag against the Oilers/Titans. The Steelers are 44-31 against them, which is just a .577 winning percentage. Most of those 44 wins have come in the Steel City. The Oilers/Titans have only beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh 11 out of 37 times.
Plus, the Steelers haven’t lost to the Tennessee franchise in Pittsburgh in nearly 10 years. Sep. 28, 2003 was the last time Tennessee won in Pittsburgh.
The Titans are coming off a poor season of 6-10 last year, but one of those wins was against the Steelers. Jake Locker is set to be the Titans’ starting quarterback, which bodes well for the Steelers. Typically, young quarterbacks have trouble with defenses like the Steelers, who disguise their coverages and blitzes very well.
Locker played well in 11 starts last year, but didn’t play against any defenses like the Steelers.
If some of the new guys on the Steelers’ defense can fill some pretty big shoes – LB Jarvis Jones is taking over for James Harrison, and Steve McLendon taking up the middle for the departed NT Casey Hampton – they should have a good time against a Tennessee offense that allowed 39 sacks last year, 12th most in the league.
The Steelers’ defense was very good last year, ranking first overall, first in pass defense, and second in rush defense in yards allowed. Where the defense struggled, as in 2011, was creating turnovers.
The Steelers were 13th in the league in fumbles forced, and and abysmal T27 in interceptions. That must improve!
They also need to up their sack total from last year. For a defense as talented and well coached as that team was, only having 37 sacks (T15 in the league), is not good enough.
While Jake Locker probably won’t be too much of a threat to the Steelers, the guy who could be is RB Chris Johnson. Johnson didn’t have an amazing year last year, but was very good, rushing for 1243 yards and six TDs. For a man who once ran for more than 2000 yards in a season, that has to seem like a hell of a drop off, but he is still a very dangerous back.
On the other side of the ball, QB Ben Roethlisberger is currently healthy, and he has to stay that way.
We all know how he extends plays and holds the ball seemingly forever. We have to live with that. What we can’t have, however, is free rushers in the backfield within a second or two of the ball hitting Ben’s hands.
Tennessee was T9 in the league with 39 sacks, 7th in picks, and T20 in fumbles forced. It will be on this very young offensive line – who are learning a new zone blocking system – to keep Ben clean and healthy, while giving the running backs some room to run.
Speaking of the running backs, it really couldn’t have gotten much worse than last year. The Steelers were 26th in the league rushing the ball last year. The only good thing I can think to say about that is that at least Oakland and Dallas were among those who finished worse.
What happened to the vaunted Steelers’ rushing attack? There were three individuals in the NFL in 2012 who rushed for more yards than the Steelers did as a team. And one of those guys was coming back from knee surgery!
The good news is if the Titans play the way they did last year, the Steelers might be able to get some ground yards on them. The Titans allowed 4.2 yards per rush last year. That was ninth worst in the NFL. So, from that point of view, it will be weakness against weakness.
There are questions galore around this Steelers team: Will the defense get more turnovers this year? Can LB Jarvis Jones, RB Le’veon Bell, and the rest of these young guys take up the slack of the grizzled veterans who left? How will the receiving corps be with the departure of speedy WR Mike Wallace? Can the rushing attack produce?
But I would say the biggest concern for this year’s Steelers team is the offensive line. This unit is trying to learn a new system, as I mentioned, and they are young. Very young. When C Maurkice Pouncey is considered the “old man” of the group, you know it is a young group.
The simple fact is the Steelers need Big Ben to be healthy and the only way that happens if he doesn’t have guys like former defensive POY LB Terrell Suggs, NT Haloti Ngata, and former defensive POY (and former Steeler) LB James Harrison landing on him all day.
When he is healthy, Big Ben is Superman in Black and Gold. When he’s not, he’s worse than Clark Kent. He’s Jimmy Olsen.
Bruce Gradkowski is a good backup, but if he were that good, he’d be starting somewhere in the NFL. You don’t want your backup quarterback playing a bunch of games during the season.
The line also has to block better for the running backs. Granted, they didn’t cause every one of the Steelers’ running backs to fumble in one game (as happened last year), but even the best back needs holes to run through. That’s why linemen get Rolexes from running backs all the time.
This defensive unit should be good. They’ve lost a couple very good players (Harrison, Hampton), but if we are being honest, those guys weren’t performing the way they had been anyway. It’s not personal. It’s business, and the Steelers are known to be among the best in the business.
There is an old adage: Better to get rid of a guy a few years too early than a year too late. I will miss Silverback and the Big Slender, but in the NFL, the only constant is change.
CB Cortez Allen looked good in the preseason, and CB Ike “Swaggin'” Taylor is still…well, swaggin’.. SS Troy Polamalu is healthy, and was flying around the field during the preseason, too.
Polamalu and FS Ryan Clark (who is a great follow on Twitter, by the way), make up a very good last-line defense, and rookie SS Shamarko Thomas gets to learn from them while making his chops.
As usual in the ‘Burgh, defense is king.
The Titans will probably try to establish RB Chris Johnson early and often. That will take the heat off QB Jake Locker and give him a little breathing room.
Locker has a year of experience under his belt, which is nothing to sneeze at, but he hasn’t seen anything like the zone blitz the Steelers run.
When the Steelers are on offense, watch the pressure on Big Ben. If he has time, like any NFL quarterback, he can take a defense apart. If he’s running for his life, however, Steeler Nation is in for a long day. Ben’s best friend will be whomever lines up behind him. Be it Isaac “Redzone” Redman, rookie Le’Veon Bell, Will Johnson, or LaRod Stephens-Howling, someone is going to have to put up some rushing yards to keep defenses at bay.
Special teams could play a part in this game as the Steelers have given up a blocked field goal and a blocked punt in four preseason games. In the game last year, the Titans and Steelers combined for seven field goals, and the Titan’s blocked a punt which turned into a touchdown two plays later.
Those kinds of mistakes, along with the incredible number of penalties the Steelers committed last year, have to be addressed and corrected, or the Steelers will not win this, or very many other, games.
My prediction: Ten 20, Pit 24