AFC North: Ropati Pitoitua
September, 5, 2013
Getty ImagesJake Locker will have to face a fresh Troy Polamalu and one of the league's top defenses.Pittsburgh is a tough place to play. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't often stay down long. The Tennessee Titans will bring a lot of unknowns to Heinz Field.
It’s an intriguing opening day matchup for two teams looking to bounce back from seasons that didn’t meet standards and fell short of expectations.
ESPN.com Steelers' blogger Scott Brown joins me for his first edition of Double Coverage, and I know he’ll understand if we skip the pleasantries and dive right in.
The Titans' rebuild is centered around their offensive line. They’ll be way more physical with a new interior of Andy Levitre, Rob Turner and Chance Warmack.
Scott, I know the offensive line has been an issue in Pittsburgh, too. What’s the status of things there, and how much better can we expect the Steelers to be up front?
Scott Brown: Paul, that is one of the biggest questions facing the Steelers. The offensive line is one of the youngest and most inexperienced the Steelers have assembled in decades. But the group is athletic and has plenty of what coach Mike Tomlin likes to call "pedigree."
Two of the starters are first-round draft picks. Two others are second-round selections. The Steelers have clearly made a big investment in the offensive line, and they need a major return on that investment for this team to return to the playoffs.
I think the interior of the line with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster has a chance to be really good. I'm not as sold on tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, who will protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.
The Titans, I'm sure, will test that line with plenty of blitzes, as the first-team offensive line struggled with pass-blocking in the preseason.
Speaking of blitzes, Titans quarterback Jake Locker will see his share with the ageless wonder Dick LeBeau still calling defenses in Pittsburgh.
How is Locker progressing, and is he the long-term answer at quarterback in Tennessee?
Paul Kuharsky: The verdict on whether Locker is the guy for the long haul won’t come until after we see this season.
He steadily improved in camp and the preseason and has reason to feel good about the state of things. I don’t think he’s going to have many games in his career in which he throws for 300 yards, but the Titans aren’t built to ask that of him. They’ll get him on the move to make simple throws and decisions, especially early, when he often needs to settle down and find a rhythm.
That line will give him time and be far better at creating space for Chris Johnson and newcomer Shonn Greene. If the Titans run effectively -- and the preseason suggested that’s one thing they are definitely good at -- they can build play-action off that and Locker will be in a perfect setting to succeed.
The two big questions are about his accuracy and how he will react to new, unforeseen circumstances. You know, the kind of stuff Lebeau has designed for this game especially for him.
Does LeBeau have the pieces to do the sort of things to confuse a young quarterback?
Brown: He has one of the most valuable pieces of all in Troy Polamalu. The dynamic strong safety allows LeBeau to do so much because he plays all over the field and opposing quarterbacks don't know where he is going to be from snap to snap.
Polamalu missed nine games last season because of a recurring calf injury, but he looked like his old self in training camp and the preseason. In that sense, the timing isn't good for the Titans to play the Steelers because Polamalu is at full strength. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley also seems poised to bounce back from an injury-plagued season in which he registered just four sacks.
With those two and other players such as inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, LeBeau won't hold back -- particularly against a relatively inexperienced quarterback who is still finding his way in the NFL.
Paul, the Steelers have never lost at Heinz Field in September under Tomlin. My question for you is what will it take for the Titans to pull off the upset on Sunday?
Kuharsky: I think it’s possible. They’d have to show poise, withstand the bad moments, minimize mistakes. You know the drill.
This is a team that has been run on by lesser running backs in the recent past, so it can’t take Isaac Redman lightly, and we’ll find out fast if Sammie Hill and Ropati Pitoitua are going to help answer the run-defense deficiencies.
The Titans must get Roethlisberger to the ground when they have the chance. After an offseason talking of press coverage, they haven’t changed at all at cornerback, and I imagine Roethlisberger will find things to attack. He knows Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard from his time in Baltimore. I won’t be surprised if the Steelers plot to get Pollard in coverage situations they feel they can exploit.
The other big question here, the elephant in the room: Your first game for ESPN.com? You ready?
Brown: To help myself to some Tomlinisms: This is where the rubber meets the road, but this is not my first rodeo. I believe I have sharpened my pen (does that still apply in the dot.com world?) for battle, but I will have to pay attention to detail. Ultimately, it comes down to making plays (or deadline in this case) inside stadiums with the lights on (yes, I know it is a 1 p.m. start, but gray days in Pittsburgh are as noteworthy as grass on a golf course). Such is life in the National Football League (and ESPN.com), and I embrace the challenge.