Coach Mike Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster made as many changes to the Tennessee Titans as they could during the offseason. The roster includes 20 new players – the most at any time during the Titans era – the staff includes new faces and one notable old one and the playbooks feature a lot of new ideas.
Sunday, they get their first real indication of how successful their efforts were when Tennessee opens the season at Pittsburgh (noon, CBS).
Three reasons to believe the Titans will succeed Sunday:
• Drawing the line: Management did everything it could to bolster the offensive line. The additions of free agents Andy Levitre (left guard) and Rob Turner (center) and first-round draft pick Chance Warmack (right guard) look to have made the expected difference. That unit certainly performed well in the preseason and has the chance to improve the offense’s performance in numerous areas.
• Less is more: The passing game was retooled during the offseason to emphasize short throws and the early results have been promising. The idea was to help quarterback Jake Locker improve his completion percentage and to keep the team in manageable third-down situations. Locker averaged 10.2 yards per completion in the preseason (he averaged 12.3 last season) but he connected on 67.3 percent of his attempts, and the offense converted 46.6 percent of its third downs.
• Familiar face: The defense could not be any worse than it was last year when the Titans set a franchise record with 471 points allowed. Gregg Williams was hired as senior assistant/defense to make sure things get better. The last time he was on the staff (2000, defensive coordinator) the team set the franchise record for fewest points allowed, with 191. Seven of last year’s 11 starters on that unit are back but the biggest difference is on the sideline.
Three reasons to believe the Titans will struggle Sunday:
• No room to run: It is no secret that the Titans need to run the ball effectively this season, but Chris Johnson never has been his best against Pittsburgh. In five career games and 80 carries against the Steelers, his longest run has been 32 yards and he has scored just two touchdowns. He has averaged 3.8 yards per carry against them overall, 3.7 at Pittsburgh.
• Fast starters: The Steelers are 40-34-4 all-time on the opening weekend, which gives them the most Week 1 victories among all AFC teams. They are 8-2 in their last 10 openers, including 7-0 when that game has been played at home. Pittsburgh and Tennessee have opened against each other two other times in the last eight years – and the Steelers won both.
• Hostile environment: Since Heinz Field opened in 2001, the Steelers have a 70-25-1 regular season record there, and in the last nine seasons they have averaged fewer than two home defeats. The Titans have a chance to become just the sixth visiting team to win there more than once – they won 30-13 in 2003. However, they are 1-4 there all-time and have been outscored 119-41 in their four defeats.
The Bottom Line
This game features two teams desparate to be better than they were a year ago but probably not as good as they'd like to be at this point.
The one thing the Titans can't allow is Pittsburgh to get out to an early double-digit lead. If that happens, the offensive game plan goes out the window and the Steelers' faithful become an even bigger factor.
Expect a close, probably low-scoring game. The difference might just be the home field. Things tend to go Pittsburgh's way much more often than not at that place.