By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers and the Tennessee Titans open the 2009 NFL season on Thursday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS RG TRAI ESSEX VS. TITANS DT JASON JONES: When the Steelers were preparing for the Titans last Dec. 21 in Nashville with the top seed in the AFC playoffs at stake, they learned All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth would miss the game with an injury. That turned out to be a big break – for the Titans – when Haynesworth was replaced by a rookie from Eastern Michigan named Jason Jones. "Well, we kind of knew it was coming," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We interviewed Jason at the combine, and we brought him in prior to the draft. We liked him, we saw him coming and we still couldn't do anything about it. Hopefully we fare a little better this time." Tomlin needs his offensive line – starting with right guard Trai Essex – to fare better against Jones, who had seven tackles and 3.5 sacks vs. the Steelers in Tennessee's 31-14 win. The Titans defensive line is the unit responsible for generating the pressure, and 38.5 of their 44 sacks from a year ago came from defensive linemen. "They're one of the most disruptive and deep defensive lines in football," said Tomlin. "They dominated us, quite frankly, in Nashville last year and they did it without Albert Haynesworth. I imagine that life without Albert Haynesworth is going to be business as usual for those guys." If it's business as usual for Jason Jones vs. the Steelers, it'll be a long night for Ben Roethlisberger.
STEELERS NT CASEY HAMPTON VS. TITANS C KEVIN MAWAE: This is the other important matchup in the interior of the line. The Titans have a potent rushing attack paced by what might be the best one-two backfield punch in football – Chris Johnson and LenDale White. Those two combined for 2,001 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2008, and they might be even more productive this season. Johnson provides the speed and White is known for his power, but not respecting Johnson's power or White's speed could lead to a big play for the Titans as well. Mawae is entering his 16th NFL season – fourth with the Titans – and he's coming off a year in which he was voted first-team All-Pro. But Mawae needed elbow surgery in January, and he spent the first three preseason games on the physically unable to perform list, before getting back onto the field for 29 snaps in the finale vs. the Browns. "I felt comfortable out there, and as far as my play goes and my elbow, it went great," said Mawae. "It felt good to be back. It was kind of like riding a bike.'' Running the ball is what the Titans do best, and they'll certainly want to do it well in an opening game on the road.
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. TITANS QB KERRY COLLINS: This is strictly about protecting the football. Collins was very good in that area throughout the 2008 season, and the Titans finished 13-3. "Kerry Collins is a savvy veteran quarterback and he does not beat himself," said Tomlin. "I think he was third in the NFL in interception percentage a year ago. He was fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt. That lets you know this guy is not going to step in stadiums and lose football games. And part of being a tough team to beat is first not beating yourself. He does that, he does that as good or as better as anyone in the game right now, so it starts there." In 19 games last season, Roethlisberger threw more than one interception on only three occasions, and the Steelers were 0-3 in those. One of those multiple-interception games came against the Titans, when safety Michael Griffin recorded two, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
STEELERS KR STEFAN LOGAN VS. TITANS P CRAIG HENTRICH AND PK ROB BIRONAS:One year ago, the Steelers ranked 31st in the NFL in punt returns, and their deep man on kickoffs also was their short-yardage running back. Things have changed dramatically for the Steelers this year, thanks to CFL refugee Stefan Logan, who averaged 21.2 yards on nine punt returns this preseason, including an 80-yard touchdown, and 37.0 yards on five kickoff returns. As a returner, Logan can be described as Antwaan Randle El with more getaway speed, and the 80-yard return for a touchdown against the Panthers happened without a lot of help from his blocking. The Titans punt coverage ranked 13th in the NFL last season, and their kickoff coverage was 29th but Rob Bironas was tied for second in the league last season with 22 touchbacks. Last season, the Steelers went into games hoping their kick returning wasn't a disadvantage, but with Logan this season it has the potential to be a weapon.