By Teresa Varley
When the Steelers and Titans meet on Sunday at LP Field in Tennessee, something has got to give.
The Steelers run defense is ranked number one in the AFC, while the Titans running game holds the same ranking in the conference.
The combination of LenDale White and Chris Johnson in the Titans backfield has helped them average 142.8 yards per game. The Steelers defense allows only 75.8 yards per game.
"It's a humungous challenge for us," said defensive end Travis Kirschke. "As a defense you look at it as a challenge. To be the champion against the run you have to beat the ones who are champions in the run.
"As a whole we are competitive. When a team is good at something, you want to be good at stopping them. It's going to make for a great match-up."
The two-back combo is nicknamed "Smash 'n Dash," with White providing the power running game and Johnson the speed. They have provided 22 touchdowns for the Titans and are a big part of their success this season.
And while the Steelers defense is used to going against bruising backs, facing a speedster like Johnson can present a whole different challenge.
"It's important for us that he can't even get started," said Kirschke. "We saw guys (on film) who had great angles on him, or they thought they had great angles on him, and they couldn't catch him. It's going to be important for us to not allow him to get through that first wave and get him down early."
Johnson has already rushed for 1,159 yards and eight touchdowns this season, including taking one 66 yards.
"It does put a lot of pressure on you because he is one of the fastest guys in the NFL right now," said linebacker Lawrence Timmons. "We do have to contain him."
If Johnson does get in the backfield, the secondary will be ready to catch him, for the most part that is.
"The other guys might be able to catch him if he breaks away, but I know I am not going to be able to catch him," joked safety Ryan Clark. "I have to get him before he gets started. Stopping the run is a team thing. We are going to be wary and know we have to support."
Even though the Steelers have secured a playoff spot and first-round bye, there still will be a lot on the line on Sunday in Tennessee. If the Steelers defeat the Titans and go on to defeat the Browns at Heinz Field on December 28, they could secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"That is the biggest thing, you are still playing for something in December," said Clark. "In these last few weeks we have had the opportunity with winning a game to accomplish something. This is another one. We are trying for home field throughout the playoffs and if we would have to meet these guys again it would be on our field."
Before the season started James Farrior joked about being the elder statesman among the team's linebackers. But he has proven that age is just a number as the 33-year-old 12-year veteran made the Pro Bowl for the second time in his Steelers' career.
"It gives me a special feeling to know my peers and coaches voted for me," said Farrior. "It shows they have a lot of respect for my game.
"It shows us old guys still have life left in us. Don't count us out yet."