By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers visit the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at LP Field:
STEELERS SS TROY POLAMALU VS. TITANS QB KERRY COLLINS: With an NFL-best seven so far, Polamalu represents a defense that ranks sixth in the league in interceptions that will be going against a quarterback in Collins, who comes into the game tied for fifth in the league with only seven interceptions in 13 starts. "Here is the thing about him," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Collins, "he utilizes all of the eligibles. He is very inclusive in terms of how he administers the offense. He doesn't make mistakes. He has thrown seven interceptions on the season, I think he has been sacked seven times on the season. As a team they have only been sacked eight. Pressure is going to be an issue for us in this football game, not sacks, just pressure. Just forcing them to throw the ball in a timely manner. They have proven that you can't get to them and get there consistently." Throughout his career, Collins has shown himself to be a quarterback who will throw interceptions – during his complete seasons as a full-time starter, he averages around 17 – but the Tennessee running attack has allowed him to throw under his terms this season. If the Steelers defense can dictate the passing situations, it will have a better chance to succeed, because Collins is completing 53.8 percent on third downs so far in 2008.
STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER VS. TITANS FS MICHEAL GRIFFIN: On the flip side of the issue outlined above is Roethlisberger, who hasn't thrown an interception since the first series of the game against the Patriots – approximately 105 attempts ago – vs. a Titans defense that's just one rung below the Steelers' among NFL leaders in the category. Griffin and CB Cortland Finnegan share the team lead with five interceptions apiece, and former Steelers free safety – Chris Hope, who's a strong safety for the Titans – lead the team. Tennessee's defense will be without Albert Haynesworth (8.5 sacks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (4.5 sacks), and a big part of any defense's ability to cover and create turnovers comes from the pass rush. Still, the Titans secondary has shown it is capable of making plays on the ball and catching it when presented with the opportunity. The Steelers are 0-2 this season when Roethlisberger throws more than one interception.
STEELERS PASS PROTECTION VS. TITANS DE JACOB FORD: Without Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch, Ford becomes the Titans primary pass rush threat. The 6-foot-4, 256 pound former sixth-round pick from Central Arkansas, Ford is in his second NFL season after missing all of 2007 with an Achilles injury. He has posted a sack in four of the previous five games, and he has a three-game streak coming into this one against the Steelers. Roethlisberger was sacked three times vs. the Ravens and five times the previous week against Dallas, but when the offense has had to move the ball and score late to win games he has had the time – or found the time by using his feet – to get the job done.
STEELERS ROLB JAMES HARRISON VS. TITANS LT MICHAEL ROOS: Part of an offensive line that has allowed an NFL-low eight sacks, Roos is a 6-7, 315-pound fourth-year pro from Eastern Washington who was Tennessee's No. 2 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. The Titans signed both Roos and RT Michael Stewart to long-term contracts to solidify what they believe is a quality offensive line, and the accomplishments of the 2008 season would support their contention. Not only are the Titans allowing the fewest sacks, but their running attack is fifth in the NFL. Their 22 rushing touchdowns ranks No. 2 behind Carolina's 25. This potent of a running attack, again, allows the Titans to dictate when they will throw the ball, but even with that Tomlin said a key for the Steelers on Sunday will be to get pressure on Collins so as to force him to throw the ball in a timely manner. Harrison comes into the game tied with Mike Merriweather for the franchise's single-season sack record with 15, and he also leads the team with 33 pressures in 2008.
STEELERS ILBs JAMES FARRIOR AND LARRY FOOTE VS. TITANS RB CHRIS JOHNSON: It's not only going to be the inside linebackers, but every defensive player, who must be conscious of Johnson, a rookie who is tearing up the AFC so far. Johnson is averaging 4.9 yards a carry – and he's fifth in the conference in attempts – and he also has touchdown runs of 51, 58 and 66 yards. When Johnson sees a crease, he attacks it aggressively and at top speed, and so gap-integrity is going to be critical. If players aren't where they're supposed to be, or try to take a shortcut thinking they can get to the football, Johnson has the cut-back ability to turn that mistake into a big play. And if he does that often enough, the Titans will be back to having Collins attempt passes on their own terms.