By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — While the Tennessee Titans’ rugged defense is expected to be a challenge for the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at 1 p.m. at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., the most difficult matchup problems should be when Titans running back Chris Johnson and quarterback Vince Young are on the field.
Young turned Tennessee’s season around last year by using solid passing, amazing athleticism, toughness and running ability. While his passing has been suspect, Young certainly is “capable of beating you with his arm or his feet,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers defensive ends, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, need to contain Young with help from outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
“I know how aggressive they are and that they are a very sound team on defense,” Young said. “When you have a defense like that to play against, you have to be very patient on offense. So, that’s what we’re going to try to do. Their D-line, Harrison, Woodley, Ike Taylor, Troy, they have a tough defense.
“This is my first time playing against them, starting against them, and you always want to play against the best. So, I have a great deal of respect for them and certainly believe they’re one of the best defenses in the league. So, I’m really looking forward to playing against the Steelers this week.”
If the Steelers focus only on Young, Johnson could shred them. After surpassing 2,000 rushing yards last year, many believe Johnson could blow away that mark this season. While Johnson has run away from most NFL defenses, he hasn’t done much against the Steelers.
Steelers inside linebackers James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons must contain Johnson, don’t let him get into the secondary and especially don’t let him cut back after he gets outside the lane. So, terms like being gap sound and staying in your lane are what the Steelers mentioned when discussing Johnson.
“The more times you can get hits on the big guys (like Chris Johnson), they usually slow down a little bit after that,” Farrior said. “We have to stay focused on the run game, on one hand, but we can’t let that take our focus away from everything else. They could really start throwing the ball on us, so we have to look at everything that they do offensively.
“You always have to be disciplined. There are some running backs who like to cut back, you can’t chase the play and get out of your lane too often. Guys like that, there’s always a chance they could come right back at you with a cut-back. So, you need to be ready for that as well. You have to be responsible when you face a running back that cuts back. You have to stay home.”
Former Steelers wideout Nate Washington remains a threat in the passing game for Tennessee, along with former Rutgers star Kenny Britt, Justin Gage and tight end Bo Scaife. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor knows that the Titans’ receivers can make big plays with the ball in their hands.
“As a DB, we want the ball to come out fast, because that means there’s a lot of pressure from our front line,” Taylor said.
“You can’t have the best of both worlds, but as a DB you definitely want the ball to come out quickly like Ryan did for Atlanta last week. So, that’s what we want Vince Young to do this week.
“That should make it tough for Scaife, Nate in the slot and that kid from Rutgers, Britt, and when you throw in C.J. and Young, they have a lot of talent on offense. That’s going to be a good matchup this week for our defense.”
The same could be said about the Steelers’ offense. New left tackle Jonathan Scott will have his hands full with Tennessee right end Dave Ball and pass-rushing specialist Jacob Ford, but he believed he was up to the task.
“Those are two pretty good D-ends right there, and they can put a lot of heat on an opposing O-line,” Scott said. “They do a great job down there of creating pressure with line movement and getting people on different levels.
“That definitely can cause breaks in the run game. But if we all stay on the same page, we’ll have another good game this week. I thought our O-line had a real good game against Atlanta, but we’ll be tested for sure by the Titans.”
Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon, in just his third NFL start, will be matched against a boisterous crowd as opposed to the home cooking he got last week.
“I’ve played in some hostile environments in college, but I feel like it’s much different than the types of crowds you face in the NFL,” Dixon said. “It’s a very different atmosphere, but it’s going to be loud in Tennessee this week. We’ll need to work on our silent counts, and we’ll probably have to use it a lot down there. (But) it’s going to be like that nearly every week on the road.
“I expect there to be a big difference in my game this week, my second straight week as a starter. That’s different than last week, which was my second start, but with a year or so in between. This is another challenge this week, but I’m ready for it. And I think I got better and better as the game went on. Hopefully, I’ll have some carryover this week at Tennessee.”
Steelers wideout Hines Ward knows when he goes across the middle, former teammate Chris Hope, a Tennessee safety, could be waiting.
“Tennessee has a great ball club and probably the most explosive player in the league right now, so offensively we have to keep him off the field,” Ward said. “But they have a great defense, too, and it all starts up front with those guys, their front four. And they have some great tacklers in their secondary.
“Hope’s still a big hitter, and (Jason) McCourty and (Cortland) Finnegan are good corners. So, we need to methodically take the ball down the field, keep their offense off the field and score points every time we touch the ball. That’s going to be tough against the Titans, but we’re going to give it a try.”
And the Steelers chances for success all depends on how they match up with the Titans.