By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Chris Johnson finished strong last season to surpass the 2,000-yard mark in rushing, and he’s going for a 13th straight 100-yard game when his Tennessee Titans play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at 1 p.m. at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.
While Johnson has gashed opposing defenses with regularity of late with a unique blend of power and tremendous speed, he’s 0-for-2 against the Steelers, a team that rarely allows running backs to run for more than 100 yards. Johnson had 57 rushing yard against the Steelers last season.
“You need to stay square to the line of scrimmage to make sure that there are no cut-back lanes,” said Steelers nose tackle Chris Hoke, who should replace injured starter Casey Hampton (hamstring) against the Titans. “That keeps him in check that way. It’s tougher for him to make that cut when you stay in your gap and stay square to the line.
“(But) our goal is to hold him under 100 yards and 3.7 yards per carry. … We just have to keep him in front of us and then get off the field. That way, we keep their offense off the field. When we get a chance, we need to get off the field on third down. That way, they won’t have another first down and another chance for him to run the ball.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noted that the Oakland Raiders kept Johnson in check for quite a while last week, but then he ripped off a 75-yard run. With safety Troy Polamalu roaming the secondary, it hardly seems likely that Johnson will explode against the Steelers like that.
“Guys can do a great job on Chris the whole game, but just give him one little crease, one lapse, and he’s off on a (long) touchdown,” Polamalu said. “So, it’s important for us to be disciplined the entire game. But I don’t know if I can run him down if I need to. The only person, I think, who can catch him is (Arizona cornerback Dominique) Rodgers-Cromartie.
“But nobody can catch him without a good angle. … It’s argumentative, but certainly he’s up there among the best running backs in the game right now. He’s very fast and slippery. (He’s) very explosive and probably the fastest player in the NFL. But it’s more than that. His 0-60 speed is incredible, so we can’t have any mental lapses with him in the game.”
One way for the Steelers to contain Johnson and athletic quarterback Vince Young is to have them watching from the sideline.
The Steelers had several nice drives last week, but must do a better job to be successful against Tennessee.
It’s also going to be a tough task because starting left tackle Max Starks is out with an ankle sprain. While it isn’t serious, it appears that Jonathan Scott should start this week and possibly next week as well. Third-year pro Tony Hills is expected to dress as the backup there.
“I played left tackle for Buffalo in Nashville, and … there was a loud crowd there,” Scott said. “You have to be prepared for that, and 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 think we had a good game last week, and we’re very prepared for this game. But they have a very tough D-line that I’ve heard has caused us problems, especially down there, so we definitely have to be on top of our game.”
It can’t be downplayed just how poorly things have gone for the Steelers in Tennessee. The team is just 1-6 at Nashville, including a 31-14 loss in 2008, and is 4-10 in the past 14 regular-season games against the Titans overall with a 13-10 overtime win to open last season.
“Actually, I just found out that we’ve had our troubles there,” Steelers fourth-year outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “But I don’t take too much out of that. They just played a good game at home against us, and that’s it.
“They weren’t all blowouts, so they mostly were pretty good games, close games, but Tennessee ended up getting more wins than Pittsburgh. There’s good and bad games against every team in this league, but we’re going to try to turn that record around beginning with this weeks game.”
And the best way for the Steelers to do that is to contain Titans running back Chris Johnson.
Notes: Steelers CB Bryant McFadden (groin) did not practice Thursday, and neither did WR Emmanuel Sanders (quadricep). … The severity of either injury is unknown, but it looks like rookie WR Antonio Brown will dress this week for Sanders and return punts and kickoffs……QB Byron Leftwich practiced for the second consecutive day.