The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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September 8, 2013

Steelers looking to gain early momentum

PITTSBURGH — 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.”

 

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