In Week 16 last year, the Steelers ventured into LP Field coming off three consecutive victories over New England, Dallas and Baltimore, all teams with winning records. The Titans were coming off a loss to the middling Texans. Albert Haynesworth was out. The top seed in the conference was on the line. Things were rolling.
But then-rookie defensive linemen Jason Jones went and had three and a half sacks and three forced fumbles. Dude seriously wrecked our shit.
You could make an argument that the game was closer than the score indicates. The Steelers led for a while in the second half. It was a one touchdown game until the pick-six at the very end, and the Titans may not have even had a full touchdown lead if not for an odd call on Brett Keisel for barking out signals when the Steelers had stopped the Titans on 3rd down in the red zone.
Still, the Titans played the game they certainly set out to have when they took the field that day. They were able to run the ball effectively. Kerry Collins, sacked only once, was 21-for-29. They forced turnovers. These variables combined will almost always equal Titans victory.
And, of course, it was the last game the Steelers lost. You saw America's Game on HBO last night. You know how it ended. In a way, it's good that the Ravens pussied out of this game, because if the Ravens come into Heinz in Week 1, well, BFD, they did that three times last year. A victory over the Titans, however, sends a more decisive message to the rest of the league: the Steelers have learned from the few mistakes they had in 2008 and reclaim a spot on the top of the league.
It's not gonna be easy. A lot of people are expecting the Titans to fall off this season, and they very well might, but they still do a lot of things that can give the Steelers problems - get a lot of pressure on the QB, stuff the run and negate the Steelers pass rush with a good line and a quarterback who makes quick reads.
Willie Parker had 19 carries for 31 yards in that meeting, which, obviously, is putrid. A marginal better offering from the tandem of he and Rashard Mendenhall isn't out of the question, but I wouldn't expect a dramatically improved effort. Trai Essex starting in place of Darnell Stapleton is essentially a wash to me at guard, but I would like to see some of the benefits of cohesion that people seem to be selling on the Steelers line.
Keyaron Fox subbing for Timmons on the inside this game strikes me as a little preferable. Reports out of camp have been that Timmons hasn't been spectacular against the run. Well, this is a game where we need people to be goddamn stout on the run. The Titans were able to mostly avoid very long third downs in the last contest, and thus Collins was under little pressure. Rattle him a little and the wheels, already unsturdy, will come off that offense.
This is actually a game where Limas Sweed could go a long way to establishing his role in the offense. Hines and Santonio both had solid games at Tennessee, each garnering at least 90 yards and a touchdown. But the longest play between the two was 31 yards, not bad but not particularly huge either. If Sweed can get a deep throw from Roethlisberger in the first half, it can change the complection of the game.
A lot is gonna be made about LenDale White before this game, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to see a late game reaction shot where he sinks his head while a jeering crowd exults, but LenWhale is nothing but a barometer for the Titans. He's not a deciding factor. If the rest of the offense gets them deep inside the Steelers' 10, here comes LenDale. If the Titans have a lead late in the game, here come LenDale to wear down the defense. Should the rest of the Titans fail to do their job, he's nothing but a very seldomly used change of pace back.
You're a spoiled team if the special teams is something you're giddy to see. And don't get me wrong, I want Sepulveda on the field as few times as possible. But Stefan Logan in legit action should be a treat. Field position is going to figure heavily in this game. That's a battle I feel confident they can win, as they can this game.