WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Tennessee’s 18th-ranked offense (347.3 ypg) didn’t miss a beat without wide receiver Kenny Britt (17 receptions, 3 TD), who suffered a season-ending knee surgery in a Week 3 win over Denver. Hasselbeck spread the wealth without his top option, hitting six different receivers. Tight end Jared Cook (7 receptions, 1 TD) caught two of the six balls thrown his way, one for an 80- yard touchdown that was the longest by a Titans/Oilers tight end since Willie Frazier on Nov. 6, 1964. Former Steeler Nate Washington (23 receptions, 1 TD) added a pair of catches for 62 yards and both tight end Craig Stevens and rookie wideout Damian Williams grabbed touchdown passes, with Williams posting the first of his career. Giving Hasselbeck time has been key and the offensive line, led by tackle Michael Roos and guard Jake Scott, did not allow a sack for the second time in four games and has yielded just four all season. The Titans still rank last in the league in rushing, but Chris Johnson (199 rushing yards) did go over 100 yards for the first time this season and will have fullback Ahmard Hall back in front of him this week, as the latter returns from a four-game suspension for using a substance on the league’s banned list.
The Titans will look to keep Johnson going this weekend against a Steelers defense that ranks second overall in the league (277.0 ypg) and first against the pass (157.5 ypg), but will feature a different look due to injuries. With Harrison (23 tackles, 2 sacks) out and fellow outside linebacker Jason Worilds also doubtful thanks to a left quad problem, Lawrence Timmons (25 tackles) will slide over from the inside to replace Harrison on the right outside spot, while veteran Larry Foote (13 tackles, 1 sack) will take over for Timmons in the middle alongside James Farrior (18 tackles, 1 sack). Defensive end Aaron Smith (8 tackles) could also miss the game because of a foot sprain, opening the door for either Ziggy Hood or rookie Cameron Heyward to start as long as Brett Keisel (5 tackles) can return as expected from a knee ailment that’s kept him out of the last two games. Pittsburgh’s defense did limit Houston to 138 yards passing — marking the third straight game it allowed less than 150 yards through the air, but was touched for 180 yards on the ground, including 155 by running back Arian Foster. The Steelers did not come up with a sack versus the Texans and are still searching for their first interception of the season. Safety Troy Polamalu (26 tackles, 1 sack) does have three picks in five games versus the Titans.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
While the Steelers have not been forcing turnovers at a desired pace, they have been generous in giving the ball away. Pittsburgh ranks last in the league with a minus-10 turnover ratio, with Roethlisberger (1148 passing yards, 3 TD, 5 INT) adding to that total with an interception versus the Texans. Roethlisberger threw for 206 yards last weekend and was sacked five times as well. With the quarterback hurting, Pittsburgh will try to offer more protection and could have both guard Doug Legursky (shoulder) and left tackle Jonathan Scott (ankle) back in the mix this weekend. Pittsburgh also added depth by re-signing veteran tackle Max Starks after cutting him during the preseason. Deep threat Mike Wallace (25 receptions, 2 TD) saw his string of six straight games with at least 100 yards receiving — tied for second-longest in league history — end after making four catches for a game-high 77 yards against Houston, while wideout Antonio Brown (15 receptions) led the way last week with five receptions for 67 yards. Running back Rashard Mendenhall (173 rushing yards, 2 TD) scored his sixth rushing touchdown in seven games, but was limited to nine carries thanks to a hamstring injury. Fellow back Mewelde Moore is also battling an ankle issue after carrying the ball four times for 34 yards in the loss. If those two can’t go, Isaac Redman will likely handle the bulk of the rushing duties.
Not only did the Titans limit the Browns to just 13 points despite yielding 416 yards of offense, but safety Jordan Babineaux (15 tackles, 1 INT) returned an interception 97 yards for a score, the second pick-six of his career and third-longest in club history. Babineaux was back on the field after Chris Hope (10 tackles) returned from a shoulder injury only to suffer a broken forearm that could sideline him for at least four weeks. Browns quarterback Colt McCoy attacked the Tennessee secondary with 61 passes, completing 40 of them, but was sacked by three different Titans and the team notched four sacks in all. Rookie defensive tackle Karl Klug (6 tackles, 2 sacks), defensive end Jason Jones, rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers (18 tackles, 1 sack) and defensive end Derrick Morgan (8 tackles, 2 sacks) all had a sack each. Safety Michael Griffin (17 tackles) also came up with a big play when he stuffed running back Armond Smith on a 4th-and-1 near midfield during the second quarter, deflating the Cleveland offense. With Cleveland going to the air so much, corners Cortland Finnegan (20 tackles) and Jason McCourty (25 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) were both busy, making 11 and 10 tackles, respectively, while outside linebacker Will Witherspoon (20 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) made eight tackles and had two passes defensed.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Yes, Hasselbeck has put together a great start, but the Steelers’ defense still has plenty of playmakers in the secondary even without Harrison roaming the field. That means that Johnson will have to show up for a second straight week to take the pressure off the passing game.
For Pittsburgh, the offensive line will have to handle the Titans’ pass rush with Roethlisberger battling a sprained foot. The returns of Legursky and Scott should help and Starks can probably step right in and play if needed, but the Steelers won’t stand a chance if Big Ben has to get mobile.
Prevent the big play. Wallace is a threat to bust a game-changing play at any time, but the Titans have done an excellent job of limiting such moments. Tennessee ranks first in the league with an average of just 4.4 yards allowed per play.
Prediction – Let’s face it, the Steelers are in big trouble. Their O-line isn’t very good, it’s beat up, and now they are without LB James Harrison. The Titans are 3-1, and they pounded the 2-1 Browns last week. Matt Hasselbeck hasn’t played well against the Steelers, but he also hasn’t had Chris Johnson behind him either. The Titans should be able to contain the Steelers offense, and I think in the end the Titans will score enough to get to 4-1 and drop the Steelers under .500. Tennessee 23 Pittsburgh 13