Breaking down Sunday's Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans game (1 p.m., Eastern, CBS) ...
1. How much will Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch be missed by Tennessee? As expected, Vanden Bosch will miss his fifth game of the year after undergoing groin surgery. On its own, that's not an unmanageable injury. So far Dave Ball and Jacob Ford have rotated into Vanden Bosch's void and held their own. In their four starts they've combined for two sacks coming off of that right edge while opponents have passed for an average of just 204 yards per game, which isn't far below Tennessee's season average of 187.6 (fifth-best in the NFL). Not too shabby.
Haynesworth's is the more intriguing injury because a.) The Titans have yet to play without him this season. They're 3-13 when he's been out of the lineup since 2004. And b.) he plays on the same side of the line that Vanden Bosch vacated, meaning that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will be stuck with backups in both positions on the right side.
In passing downs, one might expect Schwartz to make up for the loss with some creative blitz packages that would hinge upon his more than competent corners holding their own, but keep in mind that Schwartz isn't a huge blitzer. Only the Colts have blitzed less in passing situations this year. Without blitzing, he'd be betting against Ben Roethlisberger, who'd be left to pick apart Tennessee. (More on that later.)
A bigger problem could be Haynesworth's absence against the run. Without him, Pittsburgh's weakness -- running up the middle, where teeny, tiny Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore average just 2.7 yards per carry, 27th in the league -- turns into a potential strength, especially considering Haynesworth's likely replacement, rookie Jason Jones of Eastern Michigan. In what is expected to be a defensive battle, those clock-churning yards up the middle, where Haynesworth used to lurk, could come up huge in the end.
2. What does that all mean for Pittsburgh's struggling offensive line? Looking back, has there been a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the past decade whose line play has been as offensive as Pittsburgh's? Not that I can remember. And yet the Steelers get by somehow. After 15 weeks their offensive line is probably the only thing keeping them from being a unanimous Super Bowl favorite. It's one of those things, like Memphis's free-throw shooting before the NCAA basketball tournament last year, that a team manages to get away with -- but only for so long. The Steelers have pulled off four fourth-quarter comeback wins. One of these days that has to catch up with them, right?
My money says yes, if not this week then definitely in the playoffs against a team with a stronger pass rush and an offense that can put up points. (And who's that? I'm still working on that part.)
In the meantime, it's worth noting how the constant rush has changed Roethlisberger's approach to passing in '08. He's started to play like he's expecting to get walloped on every play. Last week's game-winning toss to Santonio Holmes not withstanding, watch Big Ben in the pocket and you'll see he's getting rid of the ball extremely quick, which means he's missing out on some of the big plays that might open up if he could only hang tight a moment longer.
Over the past eight weeks, Pittsburgh has produced only 22 plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks 26th in the league. But Roethlisberger has proven that he's capable of those plays when given time. In '07, for example, Pittsburgh had 59 such plays; and in '06 it had 65, which was fifth-most in the NFL. If he can settle down under what I expect to be calmer conditions, this week could be a return to form.
It's also worth mentioning here that there's an upside to Roethlisberger's new quick release that was evident on Pittsburgh's final drive of last week's win in Baltimore. During that 12-play possession he got rid of the ball in three seconds or less -- more often, it was far less -- on all but the final play, which he kept alive with a long scramble. On the four passes prior to Holmes' touchdown, Roethlisberger had released in roughly 1.5, 2, 1.5 and 0.5 seconds for gains of 9, 24 and 10, plus one incompletion. When Baltimore's defense trudged off the field, it did so without having touched Roethlisberger once during the most important drive of its season.
3. How does Tennessee approach the running game this week? You have two options, Jeff Fisher. LenDale White up the middle, where Pittsburgh allows about 2.8 yards per carry (and has only ceded two touchdowns all year). Or you hit the edges with rookie Pro Bowler Chris Johnson and endure another of White's postgame rants.
The first option is not very promising. Only the Ravens have had much success up the middle against Pittsburgh this season, and they achieved that by squirting Le'Ron McClain through a beefy unbalanced Baltimore line (three tackles to the left of the left guard) last week.
I liked the idea; it worked like a runaway steamroller. But Titans coordinator Mike Heimerdinger probably has too much confidence in his own line to try such a thing. If he defies logic and tries to take on Pittsburgh's linebackers up the middle, expect to see something akin to the horror show in Chicago when White and Johnson went 22 total yards on 24 carries, most of them right at Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs, who combined for 15 tackles. Pittsburgh's linebackers are considerably better. Could it get much worse?
A more logical ploy would be Johnson to the outside, which could help to spread and soften Pittsburgh's edges (but wouldn't do much to sell those play action passes the Titans love to run so much, or to placate White, for that matter).
If you're Fisher, here's another way to look at it. You've kept both backs fresh all year. White averages 13 carries per game; Johnson averages 17. Neither should be gassed. So the natural move seems to be to play the hotter hand in what is essentially your first playoff game. And that would be Johnson. Since the loss to the Jets, Johnson has gone for 6.8 yards per carry while White has averaged 4.2 yards on seven more carries. Easy choice.
Things get especially interesting if Tennessee enters the red zone. The Titans rank fifth in red zone efficiency, registering a touchdown 61.4 percent of the time. Eighteen of those have come on the ground, which trails only Carolina. It should be remembered, though, the Titans were in the red zone three times last week against the Texans, who rank 31st in red zone defense, and they were held to a field goal each time. What does that say about the state of the Titans offense?
At the same time, Pittsburgh is tops in overall red zone defense, allowing scores just 31.7 percent of the time (including just five rushing touchdowns). Last week was a perfect example. The Ravens faced 1st and 10 inside the Steelers 20 on three occasions and gained just 15 yards over nine plays: 12 yards on four runs, four incompletions and one three-yard catch. Heimerdinger will have to show some creativity inside the 20s if he wants to crack this Steelers unit.
Every week, we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what three assistants from 2008 Tennessee opponents had to say about game-planning Johnson, White, Kerry Collins and the Titans offense, which will have its hands full against Pittsburgh's defense.
(One thing to keep in mind: When asked to comment on the Titans' offense in general, not one of our three scouts touted Tennessee's receivers. That can't be good.)
On the offense in general:
"Their run game is, without question, their strength. They run the ball extremely well, and they stay in manageable third-down situations. They don't ask the quarterback to win the game. They're also very good in the red-zone. They do some things fundamentally that everybody talks about in the NFL but doesn't get accomplished. They don't ask their receivers and tight ends to do more than they can do. They play to their strengths, which is the run game."
On those running backs:
"If you were playing against LenDale White the majority of the game you could get a good plan and say, 'This is what we're going to do.' But then you bring in the speed guy, Chris Johnson, who can get on the edge and also hit you up the middle, that's a different deal. That changes how you approach things because every time he touches it he can go the distance."
"He doesn't take sacks; he doesn't turn the ball over. That's a big part of having success in the NFL, just being able to manage the game and, every now and then, make a play. That's the key to their success, the fact that they don't put their quarterback in a position to peril or turn the ball over.
"He's had a resiliency to the negativism during the downside of his career, and that has made him the kind of quarterback that he is right now. He can still make plays. Look at Tennessee's overall makeup, with the older guys, and they must have a lot of leadership in that locker room."
On the heart of their offensive line:
"Kevin Mawae might be on the downside of his career but he has that veteran leadership and knowledge you want to see. He's very savvy; he knows the tricks of the trade. He's a cagey kind of player who gets things done without the overall physical ability he once had when he was more of a puller. Having him right smack in the middle making calls and getting the line going where it's supposed to be going makes them physical. When we've played Tennessee, our guys have had trouble because you just don't see that kind of center week in and week out."
Last week I showed faith in one team, the Giants, to bounce back from what looked like a minor hiccup. My bad. Now they've got me second-guessing my initial instinct, that Tennessee bounces back strong here. Having spent some more time looking over Tennessee's schedule and watching a few more games -- especially that debacle in Houston -- I'm flip-flopping. I like Pittsburgh, which has been winning big game after big game, to carry this one because its vastly talented defense can handle just about anything defensively. (Have I really gotten this far without mentioning James Harrison and James Farrior? And Troy Polamalu? Oh my.) Plus, I think the Steelers' offense can do just enough to exploit Tennessee's battered defensive front. Pittsburgh's the pick, 20-9.