JJ mentioned this at the end of the Steelers Lounge podcast (subscribe now!), but it’s worth repeating: if somebody had told you that Pittsburgh would be 1-0 with their third-string quarterback under center and after losing their left tackle and nose tackle, you’d take it.
The preseason post-Ben-suspension news was to suck it up for four weeks, find a way to go 2-2, regroup during the bye and get back into the ass-kicking business in Week 6 against the Browns. But fans are selfish and I’ll happily admit that, promptly after Rashard Mendenhall ripped off a 50-yarder to win it in overtime, I thought, “You know, 3-1 or, hell, 4-0 isn’t completely impossible now.”
In all likelihood, it probably is, but, hey, sports are our distraction from the everyday mundanities. If I want to dream about a Ben-less Steelers team going 4-0, give me that. Expectations and reality will have their head-on collision soon enough (like, say, Sunday afternoon). Especially now that it looks like Max Starks and Casey Hampton will be in their Duce Staley Memorial Game Day sweats against a Titans team that historically gives the Steelers trouble.
Truthfully, I wouldn’t feel particularly confident about this game even if Ben were under center because a) it’s in Nashville and b) Jeff Fisher’s mustache is nearly unstoppable at home. (The insane part of me would love to see Bill Cowher lead the Steelers out of the tunnel Sunday and instead of stopping at the sidelines, he makes a beeline for Fisher and breaks his leg. Again. There’s your pregame message.)
Instead, Dennis Dixon will get his second start of the season and barring some Mr. Miyagi magic, Jonathan Scott will replace Starks, and Hoke et al will take over for Hampton. And while losing Ben is a huge deal, I’m less concerned about Starks and Hampton, at least in the short term.
First — and JCRODRIGUEZ made this point in the comments — the offensive line is improved with the additions of Pouncey and Flozell. I’ve been beating that drum too — the 2008 o-line was an abomination, the ’09 version was slightly improved, and this unit has a chance to be even better. (And in case it’s not obvious: “even better” means “approaching mediocrity.”)
Look, I know that Willie Colon has come a long way since 2006, but remember the weekly calls from fans for the organization to move him to guard? And those conversations were usually after Willie had been flagged three or four times the previous game for not lining up on the line of scrimmage. My point: he’s an adequate right tackle, but let’s not make him more than that. Flozell, after a rough start in the preseason, has been fine. And when you’re talking Steelers o-line fine is more than enough.
Losing Starks, even for just a week, isn’t ideal. The question is will it be enough to effect what the Steelers want to do offensively. The last time Pittsburgh was in Tennessee (Week 16 of the 2008 season), Ben took a beating. Haynesworth didn’t even play, but then-rookie Jason Jones had 3.5 sacks and forced two fumbles. I suspect the Titans will prepare differently for Dixon than they would Big Ben, and the threat of Dixon breaking off huge runs will factor into their game plan.
But for as bad as Dixon looked in the first half against the Falcons, he pulled it together for the final two quarters. If he can overcome the short-hops to Randle El and line drives to Heath Miller near the sidelines, Week 2 should be better. That said, defensively, the Titans are much more aggressive than the Falcons, but that could be good news for the Steelers. More chances for big plays off misdirections, bootlegs and play action. In fact, I’m all for two or three deep looks to Mike Wallace off play-action. It’s been mentioned here a bunch, but you can’t overthrow Wallace. Worst case: incompletion.
My biggest concerns stem from a conservative strategy that backfires. A lot of runs and safe passes early are fine, but as soon as a turnover switches field position or puts points on the board for Tennessee, that game plan goes out the window. The problem: the Steelers try to make up a double-digit deficit, the Titans know it and come after Dixon. Unlike Byron or Charlie, Dixon’s elusiveness has to be accounted for but every quarterback — even Ben — gets gun shy. Just putting that out there.
Defensively, Hampton’s strained ham hock means that Hoke, Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood could see a lot of time. I was talking to my buddy about this after Michael Turner’s no-show performance in Week 1: big backs don’t worry me. The Steelers regularly handle them, especially when they try to run outside. Chris Johnson, on the other hand, scares the shit out of me. He is a one-man game-changer and he does for Vince Young what we all hope Mendenhall can do for Dennis this month (so far, so good).
I don’t know if losing Hampton will have any bearing on how the Titans attack the Pittsburgh run defense, although if the Steelers had to be without one of their defensive stars for this game, Casey’s pretty high on the list. Speed is at a premium, and after watching what Juan Timmons did to the Falcons, I’m looking forward to watching him against Tennessee. I think Ed Bouchette pointed it out after the game, but if Polamalu was a linebacker he would have looked like Timmons against Atlanta.
I’ll be honest: this post was as much about talking myself into the Steelers’ chances against the Titans as it was an examination of the actual game. (I’m guessing you already knew that.) But look at it this way: even down two key players, Pittsburgh is quite capable of heading to Tampa 2-0. It could be worse. We could be Jets fans.