Season opens with Titans, Steelers battling for respect, not revenge

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You may recall the Tennessee Titans are the last team to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, stomping the eventual Super Bowl champs -- and their Terrible Towels -- 31-14 in a Week 16 showdown that wrapped up the AFC's top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for coach Jeff Fisher's club.

But there's a flip side to that fun fact, and it still stings to admit it in Tennessee. The Titans haven't won a game since that beatdown of the Steelers on Dec. 21, and the juxtaposition of how these two elite teams fared after that highly emotional game couldn't be starker.

"We've had a bad taste in our mouth ever since,'' Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "Even though we went 13-3 last season, nobody feels like we accomplished anything. For us personally, our fans, our coaches, the way the season ended last year was a tremendous disappointment and a tremendous letdown.''

Tennessee must have messed with its good karma that day, when it scored more points against the Steelers and their No. 1 ranked defense than any other team did all season, but then celebrated on the sidelines with running back LenDale White and linebacker Keith Bulluck stomping on Pittsburgh's beloved Terrible Towels. I say that because the Titans lost the next week in their meaningless season finale at Indianapolis, took their first-round playoff bye, and then swiftly exited the Super Bowl tournament with a shocking 13-10 turnover-marred loss at home to Baltimore in the divisional round.

You know what the Steelers did after losing in Nashville to fall to 11-4 and into the AFC's No. 2 seed position. The defeat by the Titans was Pittsburgh's only loss in its final 10 games last year. The Steelers won the next week at home against Cleveland to end the regular season, sat out the first round, then ripped off wins over the Chargers, Ravens and Cardinals in the playoffs to earn that historic sixth Super Bowl ring for all of Pittsburgh.

And now here they are in Thursday night's highly anticipated opener, ready to celebrate that title in glitzy, nationally televised style and face a Titans team that clearly served to hone their focus and intensify their competitive fires coming out of last December's blowout. All in all, it's not a bad way to get things started in this 2009 NFL season: The team that finished with the best regular season record in football last year having something to prove against the team that finished on top of everyone, in a matchup that was supposed to take place in last year's AFC Championship.

"The reality is it's going to be significant,'' said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, of what will be the league's eighth consecutive Thursday night season opener, the last six of which have been hosted by the defending Super Bowl champion. "It's going to be an electric atmosphere. It's going to be awesome. I think the guys who have been around have an understanding of that, so really, it's a positive thing.''

The Titans didn't take care of business against Baltimore in the playoffs, but they certainly got the job done the last time they played Pittsburgh. Tennessee didn't commit a turnover against the vaunted Steelers defense in that game, and on defense, the Titans sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, picked him off twice, with Pro Bowl safety Michael Griffin returning one of those 83 yards for a touchdown. Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins threw for 216 yards against the Steelers, and was the only passer all season with a 100-plus QB rating against them (102.1)

About the only mistake Tennessee made all day came late in that game, when White and Bulluck did the unthinkable in the eyes of Steelers fans everywhere, wiping their cleats on those almost mystical pieces of cloth known as Terrible Towels. Get ready to see those familiar video clips a few more times during Thursday night's telecast, but even one ex-Steeler turned Titan admits this is a game with ramifications far beyond just revenging the Towel.

"[Titans players] have asked me about it and what we were saying in our locker room about it,'' said Nate Washington, the former Steelers No. 3 receiver who signed with Tennessee during free agency. "I just told these guys we can't be focused on that Terrible Towel incident. No matter what gets blown out of proportion about it. September 10 is not going to be a fight for a Terrible Towel. It's going to be a fight for respect and for establishing something for 2009.''

Even with Tennessee's White again playing the role of chucklehead and saying this week that he'd do the same thing to the Terrible Towel all over again given the chance -- "If it happens to be there, I'm going to stomp all over that, man,'' -- the Steelers too have been playing down the Towel incident and playing up the critical importance of getting their Super Bowl defense off to the right beginning.

"We understand that our fans are hacked off about it, as they should be,'' Tomlin said. "But if we're going to be more motivated, or hit them harder, or pursue the ball harder because they stomped a Terrible Towel, then we're not a right-minded group. We're turned on because it's a football game, and when we kick it off, we play and we play to win.''

The Titans and Steelers, two of the AFC's elite, went in opposite directions after they met in memorable fashion last December. Pittsburgh closed the very deal that Tennessee had its sights set on. Now they're back on the same field once again, NFL football itself is back, and a new story of some sort is almost certain to unfold.

Five things I'll be watching for in tonight's Titans-Steelers game ...

1. There's no Albert Haynesworth in the middle of the Titans defensive line any more, but there is a Jason Jones. Don't laugh. Jones had 3½ sacks of Roethlisberger in that game against the Steelers, not bad for a situational player. I can't wait to see what new Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil does with a defensive line rotation that he believes can compensate for Haynesworth's departure. Jones, Tony Brown, Jovan Haye and Kevin Vickerson will all see plenty of work at defensive tackle.

2. It'll be a party tonight in the pre-game hours in Pittsburgh, because that's what you do when you're celebrating another Super Bowl banner being hung. But once the game starts I'll be anxious to see if there are any signs the Steelers will struggle with the burden of expectations this season, as they did the last time they were the defending champs.

Pittsburgh started 2-6 that season, rallied in the second half, but still missed the playoffs at 8-8 in Bill Cowher's final season. That's the only non-playoff season of Roethlisberger's five-year NFL career. In 2006's title defense, Big Ben was coming off his motorcycle crash. This time, he's playing amidst the backdrop of that civil lawsuit for sexual assault. Will it impact his play in any way?

3. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher told me during training camp that Michael Griffin could be the "best safety in the league'' by the end of this year, and I'm guessing he'd have Roethlisberger in agreement with that. Partly because of his two interceptions of Big Ben last year, Griffin made the Pro Bowl last season (along with two other Titans secondary members, safety Chris Hope and cornerback Cortland Finnegan) and appears ready to become a play-making force in the mold of fellow AFC safeties Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.

4. Nate Washington left Pittsburgh for Tennessee this offseason for the chance to be more than the No. 3 receiver he was on the Steelers depth chart. Though his availability for tonight might be affected by the hamstring injury he has been battling in recent weeks, Washington is determined to lead a group of young Titans receivers that may be better than many expect. "I didn't want to continue to fight in the shadows any more,'' Washington told me in camp. "I felt like it was my time. I've worked hard to be a starter in this league, and now that I'm here, it's very gratifying.''

Washington is on hand to supply the outside speed and vertical threat Tennessee has lacked, but keep an eye on rookies Kenny Britt at receiver and Jared Cook (if he plays through an ankle injury) at tight end. Both are explosive new playmakers for the Titans passing game.

5. The Steelers have some exciting youth of their own on offense and special teams. Running back Rashard Mendenhall lost most of his rookie season last year to a shoulder injury, and receiver Limas Sweed was known more for dropped passes than big plays as a rookie in 2008. They both look ready to step up into larger roles this year. And new Steelers return man Stefan Logan, a former CFL running back, has been a preseason sensation and will take over one of the few areas on the Steelers roster that lacked in production last season.