The Tennessee Titans didn’t mess around during the offseason.
Following a 6-10 march to mediocrity that left the franchise spinning its wheels while Andrew Luck and Indianapolis zoomed by in pursuit of AFC South power Houston, Tennessee gutted the roster in hopes of rebuilding on the fly.
The early returns on the 20 new faces – 13 free agents plus seven draft picks – are promising. They’re also meaningless. For all the good things coach Mike Munchak saw during training camp, they’ll hardly matter Sunday when the Titans charge out of the tunnel at Heinz Field to take on the Steelers.
“It’s a huge test,” Munchak said. “Most of them usually are on the road, in the opener. You don’t know what to expect sometimes just because you can’t really go off a lot of preseason film and what you see on there.”
Like the Titans, the Steelers are coming off an underwhelming year. Pittsburgh went 8-8 and faded down the stretch.
And just as Tennessee did, the Steelers revamped the roster. Linebacker James Harrison was cut. Receiver Mike Wallace left for Miami in free agency. Ditto cornerback Keenan Lewis to New Orleans. Nose tackle Casey Hampton and offensive tackle Max Starks weren’t offered a contract.
The difference is, the Steelers don’t rebuild. Refurbish maybe, but the company line remains “the standard is the standard.” It wasn’t met last season.
“It is a new cast of characters legitimately every year – that is just the nature of today’s NFL,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “It is better served not to tote the baggage.”
Tomlin would prefer his players instead carry a sense of urgency as they try to avoid missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time this millennium.
Five things to look for in Week 1:
1. STOPPING CJ2K: Chris Johnson started to look like the “CJ2K” of old in 2012 when he ran for 1,243 yards. Though he remains one of the best big-play running backs, the 27-year-old has been held in check during five meetings with the Steelers. Johnson is averaging 60.4 yards per game against Pittsburgh.
“It’s just luck,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. “He’s a dangerous guy.”
Johnson finds himself playing behind a reconfigured offensive line that features three new starters.
“We want to get back to the old Titan ways, and we want to run the ball,” he said. “Even if teams know we’re going to run the ball, we still want to run the ball.”
2. PROTECTING BEN: Pittsburgh’s offensive line isn’t new. It’s just young. Guard Ramon Foster is the elder statesmen at 27 and the other four starters – center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro and tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert – were taken in the top two rounds.
That’s a lot of pedigree ... and pressure. The Steelers believe they have a chance so long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains healthy. Last season’s tailspin began the second Roethlisberger went down in November. But the two-time Super Bowl winner believes the talent is in place to keep him upright.
“There’s no secret that we want to be great so that we can rub it in all of your guys’ faces,” Roethlisberger said with a laugh.
3. DEFENSIVE WIZARDS: The Steelers have finished as the NFL’s top-ranked defense each of the last two seasons and four times in the last nine years, a tribute to coordinator Dick LeBeau.
The Titans don’t think they need to reach that level to be competitive, but they were so desperate to help a unit that gave up a league-leading 471 points a year ago that they hired Gregg Williams as a defensive assistant after he served his suspension for his role in “Bountygate” while serving as coordinator in New Orleans.
“Guys believe in what his plans are, and he has a way of making guys better than they think they can be,” Munchak said.
4. FAMILIAR FACES: Though they haven’t been division rivals since 2002, the Titans and Steelers remain familiar with one another. They’ve played in each of the last five regular seasons and Tennessee hasn’t won in Pittsburgh in over a decade.
The regular meetings have led to some spirited chatter. The Titans chirped at Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor regularly in last season’s 26-23 victory.
“We see the film and guys talking, mouthing off after certain plays,” Clark said. “That’s the great thing about football. You get to correct that.”
5. BODY BY JAKE: Third-year quarterback Jake Locker is firmly entrenched as the starter but needs to take a step forward after going 4-7 during his injury-marred 2012. The Titans brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick just in case, but this is Locker’s team.
“There’s a lot of things he’s just a lot better at,” Munchak said. “I think we have more bullets in the gun for him.”
The Tennessee Titans didn’t mess around during the offseason.
Bengals make low offer to Hawkins
Johnstown’s Andrew Hawkins grew up with the Cincinnati Bengals while following his older brother Artrell Hawkins Jr.’s NFL career.
The younger Hawkins could see himself wearing a Bengals uniform and playing wide receiver in Cincinnati for years to come. But the Bishop McCort High School graduate knows the business side of the NFL sometimes gets in the way of the storybook ending.
Liriano sharp in Pirates victory over Rays
Russell Martin homered for the third time this spring and drove in four runs to lead Francisco Liriano and the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 10-5 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday.
Martin had an RBI single during a six-run first inning against Rays starter Matt Moore and added a three-run homer off Grant Balfour in the fourth.
McCutchen leads Pirates offense in loss to Twins
Andrew McCutchen homered, doubled and singled Friday for the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 6-5 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
McCutchen went 3 for 3, scored twice and drove in two runs. The reigning NL MVP is 8 for 11 in four games this spring.
Pirates, Jays rained out
The Toronto Blue Jays' spring training game at the Pittsburgh Pirates was rained out Thursday.
The game will not be made up.
Pirates rough up Blue Jays’ Morrow
Brandon Morrow allowed five runs and six hits over three innings in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 6-4 loss Wednesday to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Morrow was making his second appearance since a season-ending forearm injury last May. On Feb. 28, the right-hander gave up two hits and one run in two relief innings.
Steelers sign Polamalu, cut Foote
Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller are doing their part to help the Pittsburgh Steelers get under the 2014 salary cap.
The eight-time Pro Bowl safety and the venerable tight end both signed new three-year contracts with the team on Wednesday designed to give the Steelers some cap relief before the new league year begins next week.
Pens pick up pair of forwards
The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t go for the big splash at the trade deadline this time.
General manager Ray Shero believes the little ripples his team made instead can be just as effective as the franchise pursues its fourth Stanley Cup.
Penguins snap out of slump
Matt Niskanen scored his second goal of the game 7:29 into the third period, and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Nashville Predators 3-1 on Tuesday night to snap a three-game skid.
Niskanen and the Penguins helped ruin the return of Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne in his first game since Oct. 22 following an E. coli infection in his surgically repaired left hip.
Morton throws three scoreless innings in Pirates victory
Charlie Morton allowed one hit in three scoreless innings, helping the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 5-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday.
Morton did not strike out a batter, but he kept Detroit off the bases during his short stint, aside from Don Kelly’s second-inning double.
Alvarez, Martin hit two-run shots in Bucs’ win
Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin hit two-run homers off Brandon Workman, who started in place of injured Jake Peavy, and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Boston Red Sox 7-6 Monday.
Pittsburgh leadoff batter Starling Marte reached on an infield single in the first that stopped an 0-for-9 start, and Alvarez homered to right off Workman with two outs.
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