Points have been hard to come by this season when the Tennessee Titans or Pittsburgh Steelers are lined up on the defensive side of the ball, but the edge in this Week 5 showdown at Heinz Field could have shifted to the visitors because of an injury to Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
A left foot ailment to Ben Roethlisberger isn't likely to help Pittsburgh's chances on Sunday either as it tries to prevent Tennessee and resurgent quarterback Matt Hasselbeck from recording a fourth straight victory.
While the 3-1 Titans are tied with Houston atop the AFC South, the Steelers are a game off the pace in the AFC North following a 17-10 defeat to the Texans last weekend. Pittsburgh was looking for a third straight win after a humbling 28-point defeat to division-rival Baltimore in Week 1, but struggled on offense and lost Harrison to an eye injury in the first half.
Though Harrison did play some in the second half, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday that his star linebacker and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year will be out for a few games because of a fractured orbital bone.
The news was better on Roethlisberger, who will likely be limited in practice before playing on Sunday.
"[He] had his foot X-rayed, MRI'ed [and] thankfully nothing's broken there," Tomlin stated. "It is a sprain and may limit him at the early portions [in practice] of the week, but we do anticipate him being able to participate in this football game. We're going to let the week speak to us."
Added Roethlisberger on Wednesday, "We will just take it day-by-day and kind of see how it goes. If it's just a pain tolerance thing, I'm going to be out there. I can deal with pain, we just want to make sure that structurally it's sound and we give our team the best chance to win."
The Steelers lost for only the third time in their last 11 regular-season road games and are still in decent position after opening the season with three of four games away from home. Pittsburgh recorded a 24-0 victory over Seattle on Sept. 18 in its only other game at Heinz Field this season, and plays its next two at home looking to make a run in the standings.
"We better have a sense of urgency," said Tomlin. "I think anytime you are coming off of a sub-standard performance when you lose, there needs to be a sense of urgency in terms of how you bounce back. But we are not going to make something out of this that it's not. We understand that we are capable of playing better. We expect to play better."
Pittsburgh's offense will need to improve as it faces the league's top-scoring defense in the Titans, who have not allowed more than 16 points in a game this season. That has put Tennessee in position to win four in a row for the first time since a five-game run from Nov. 1-29, 2009.
At 3-1, Tennessee is also off to its best start since beginning the 2008 campaign with 10 consecutive victories.
Hasselbeck has been key to the success. After joining the Titans this offseason, the veteran has passed for 1,152 yards with eight touchdowns, the best totals in both categories over a four-game start over his 13-year career.
He threw three first-half touchdown passes in last Sunday's 31-13 victory over Cleveland, finding three different receivers.
"He did a good job of reading the coverage and throwing to people that can make plays," Titans head coach Mike Munchak said of Hasselbeck. "He has been doing that for all four weeks that he has played for us, so hopefully he can continue to get better by working with the young receivers."
Hasselbeck has struggled in the past against the Steelers, having thrown for 604 yards with two touchdowns, a pair of interceptions and taking 10 sacks in three previous meetings.
The Titans snapped a six-game road slide dating back to last season with their win at Cleveland and will open a three-game homestand after their Oct. 16 bye.
These one-time division rivals have faced one another 69 times previously during the regular season, with Pittsburgh extending its lead in the series to 40-29 by virtue of a 19-11 win in Nashville during Week 2 of last season. The Steelers also came through with a 13-10 overtime decision over Tennessee at home in 2009 and have never lost to the Titans in three lifetime meetings at Heinz Field. Tennessee's last victory in Pittsburgh was a 23-20 triumph at Three Rivers Stadium on Sept. 24, 2000, and the team last topped the Steelers back in 2008, a 31-14 win at LP Field.
Pittsburgh also owns a 3-1 advantage over the Tennessee franchise in postseason play. The Steelers defeated the Houston Oilers at home in both the 1978 and 1979 AFC Championship Games and were 26-23 overtime victors at the Astrodome in a 1989 AFC First-Round Playoff. The Titans' only positive result in the playoff series was a 34-31 overtime verdict in a 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff held in Nashville.
These teams squared off twice annually from 1970-2001, when both were then members of the now-defunct AFC Central Division.
Tomlin is 2-1 all-time against the Titans as a head coach, while Munchak will be opposing both the Steelers and Tomlin for the first time as a man in charge.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Tennessee's 18th-ranked offense (347.3 ypg) didn't miss a beat without wide receiver Kenny Britt (17 receptions, 3 TD), who suffered a season-ending knee surgery in a Week 3 win over Denver. Hasselbeck spread the wealth without his top option, hitting six different receivers. Tight end Jared Cook (7 receptions, 1 TD) caught two of the six balls thrown his way, one for an 80- yard touchdown that was the longest by a Titans/Oilers tight end since Willie Frazier on Nov. 6, 1964. Former Steeler Nate Washington (23 receptions, 1 TD) added a pair of catches for 62 yards and both tight end Craig Stevens and rookie wideout Damian Williams grabbed touchdown passes, with Williams posting the first of his career. Giving Hasselbeck time has been key and the offensive line, led by tackle Michael Roos and guard Jake Scott, did not allow a sack for the second time in four games and has yielded just four all season. The Titans still rank last in the league in rushing, but Chris Johnson (199 rushing yards) did go over 100 yards for the first time this season and will have fullback Ahmard Hall back in front of him this week, as the latter returns from a four-game suspension for using a substance on the league's banned list.
The Titans will look to keep Johnson going this weekend against a Steelers defense that ranks second overall in the league (277.0 ypg) and first against the pass (157.5 ypg), but will feature a different look due to injuries. With Harrison (23 tackles, 2 sacks) out and fellow outside linebacker Jason Worilds also doubtful thanks to a left quad problem, Lawrence Timmons (25 tackles) will slide over from the inside to replace Harrison on the right outside spot, while veteran Larry Foote (13 tackles, 1 sack) will take over for Timmons in the middle alongside James Farrior (18 tackles, 1 sack). Defensive end Aaron Smith (8 tackles) could also miss the game because of a foot sprain, opening the door for either Ziggy Hood or rookie Cameron Heyward to start as long as Brett Keisel (5 tackles) can return as expected from a knee ailment that's kept him out of the last two games. Pittsburgh's defense did limit Houston to 138 yards passing -- marking the third straight game it allowed less than 150 yards through the air, but was touched for 180 yards on the ground, including 155 by running back Arian Foster. The Steelers did not come up with a sack versus the Texans and are still searching for their first interception of the season. Safety Troy Polamalu (26 tackles, 1 sack) does have three picks in five games versus the Titans.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
While the Steelers have not been forcing turnovers at a desired pace, they have been generous in giving the ball away. Pittsburgh ranks last in the league with a minus-10 turnover ratio, with Roethlisberger (1148 passing yards, 3 TD, 5 INT) adding to that total with an interception versus the Texans. Roethlisberger threw for 206 yards last weekend and was sacked five times as well. With the quarterback hurting, Pittsburgh will try to offer more protection and could have both guard Doug Legursky (shoulder) and left tackle Jonathan Scott (ankle) back in the mix this weekend. Pittsburgh also added depth by re-signing veteran tackle Max Starks after cutting him during the preseason. Deep threat Mike Wallace (25 receptions, 2 TD) saw his string of six straight games with at least 100 yards receiving -- tied for second-longest in league history -- end after making four catches for a game-high 77 yards against Houston, while wideout Antonio Brown (15 receptions) led the way last week with five receptions for 67 yards. Running back Rashard Mendenhall (173 rushing yards, 2 TD) scored his sixth rushing touchdown in seven games, but was limited to nine carries thanks to a hamstring injury. Fellow back Mewelde Moore is also battling an ankle issue after carrying the ball four times for 34 yards in the loss. If those two can't go, Isaac Redman will likely handle the bulk of the rushing duties.
Not only did the Titans limit the Browns to just 13 points despite yielding 416 yards of offense, but safety Jordan Babineaux (15 tackles, 1 INT) returned an interception 97 yards for a score, the second pick-six of his career and third-longest in club history. Babineaux was back on the field after Chris Hope (10 tackles) returned from a shoulder injury only to suffer a broken forearm that could sideline him for at least four weeks. Browns quarterback Colt McCoy attacked the Tennessee secondary with 61 passes, completing 40 of them, but was sacked by three different Titans and the team notched four sacks in all. Rookie defensive tackle Karl Klug (6 tackles, 2 sacks), defensive end Jason Jones, rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers (18 tackles, 1 sack) and defensive end Derrick Morgan (8 tackles, 2 sacks) all had a sack each. Safety Michael Griffin (17 tackles) also came up with a big play when he stuffed running back Armond Smith on a 4th-and-1 near midfield during the second quarter, deflating the Cleveland offense. With Cleveland going to the air so much, corners Cortland Finnegan (20 tackles) and Jason McCourty (25 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) were both busy, making 11 and 10 tackles, respectively, while outside linebacker Will Witherspoon (20 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) made eight tackles and had two passes defensed.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Yes, Hasselbeck has put together a great start, but the Steelers' defense still has plenty of playmakers in the secondary even without Harrison roaming the field. That means that Johnson will have to show up for a second straight week to take the pressure off the passing game.
For Pittsburgh, the offensive line will have to handle the Titans' pass rush with Roethlisberger battling a sprained foot. The returns of Legursky and Scott should help and Starks can probably step right in and play if needed, but the Steelers won't stand a chance if Big Ben has to get mobile.
Prevent the big play. Wallace is a threat to bust a game-changing play at any time, but the Titans have done an excellent job of limiting such moments. Tennessee ranks first in the league with an average of just 4.4 yards allowed per play.
Left to settle into the ranks of NFL afterthought, Hasselbeck has instead sparked the Titans to one of their best starts in recent memory despite the talented Johnson's slow start. The veteran quarterback showed last week that he doesn't need a No. 1 target to be successful, and his ability to spread the ball out should keep the Steelers' secondary on its heels. Pittsburgh has yet to flash the talent that helped get the team to the Super Bowl a season ago, and injuries to Harrison and Roethlisberger aren't exactly what it needs right now. This is probably the toughest of a three-game stretch that comes before Pittsburgh's big showdowns with the Patriots and Ravens later on in the season, and the Steelers will likely have to wait one more week to turn things around.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 16, Steelers 13