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Game of the Week: Steelers-Titans

1. Pittsburgh QB Dennis Dixon had a high standard to live up to in Week 1 ... and he did it. No. 1 QB Ben Roethlisberger, currently serving a league-mandated four-game suspension, has been widely misunderstood by the pigskin pundits. Even many Pittsburgh fans consider him the proverbial "game manager" who has benefited from a top defense and a commitment to the run on offense.

The truth is Roethlisberger is one of the most effective passers in the history of the game ... if you know which stats to study. The single most important stat in football, and maybe in all of North American sports, is passing yards per attempt. Roethlisberger boasts an incredible 8.01 YPA in his career. How good is that? It's No. 5 on the all-time list. (No. 1 Otto Graham averaged 8.62 YPA during his six-year NFL career; no coincidence his Browns played for the NFL title all six years.)

Roethlisberger's misunderstood effectiveness, more than anything else, explains why the Steelers suddenly became contenders, and won two Super Bowls after 25 years of frustration, immediately after he took the reins of the Pittsburgh offense in 2004.

That historic production also gave the Cold, Hard Football Facts cause for concern with the untested Dixon handling the offense. Naturally, it'd be unreasonable to expect Dixon to live up to the historic standards set by Roethlisberger.

But so far, so good. Dixon was extraordinarily effective in Pittsburgh's 15-9 Week 1 win over Atlanta. He did throw one interception, but he completed 18 of 26 passes for 236 yards. Those are very efficient numbers: a 69.2 completion percentage, and a Roethlisberger-esque 9.08 yards per attempt in just his second NFL start.

Three more games like that, and the Steelers will be in very good shape for a team playing without one of the most effective passers in history.

2. Vince Young is an elite company, but we're not sure why. After last week's 38-13 schoolyard beating of Oakland, Tennessee's quarterback is 27-13 in 40 NFL starts. How good is that?

• Three-time champ Tom Brady, one of the most successful QBs in NFL history, was 28-12 in his first 40 NFL starts.

• San Diego's Philip Rivers, who has led San Diego to the two winningest seasons in franchise history (13 and 14 wins), was 28-12.

• Roethlisberger, a two-time champ, was 29-11 in his first 40.

We know how those guys did it: Brady is extraordinarily productive with minimal mistakes, as evidenced by his record TD-INT ratio (2.3 to 1); Rivers is extraordinarily efficient, as evidenced by the second-best passer rating in history (95.9); and Roethlisberger is one of the most effective passers in history (as noted above).

But Young? He does nothing right statistically. He's not accurate (57.9 percent career completions); not effective moving the ball via the pass (6.7 YPA, below the league-wide average of 6.9 YPA); not efficient (73.4 passer rating; well below the contemporary average of about 82.0); and not particularly productive or careful with the ball (career 34 TD passes vs. 39 INTs).

For most quarterbacks, those numbers spell a 4-12 season, no matter how good the ground game. For Young, it ends up a victory almost 70 percent of the time. We hate to use a popular cliché, but the Cold, Hard Football Facts agree: "All Vince Young does is win football games."

Maybe 2010 will bring the stats with it: Young enters Week 2 the highest-rated passer in the NFL (142.8).

3. Troy Polamalu is more important than you realize. The spectacular Pittsburgh safety, now in his eighth season, has played just three full 16-game campaigns. The Steelers won Super Bowls in two of those years (2005, 2008).

His impact is evident when you look at the performance of Pittsburgh's pass defense in 2008 and then in 2009, when the injured Polamalu missed most of the season with injuries.

The champion Steelers in 2008 boasted one of the best pass defenses in modern history. In fact, they compared favorably with Pittsburgh's legendary Steel Curtain of the 1970s. Here's how the 2008 Steelers sized up on pass defense with the Steel Curtain, in terms of opponent average per attempt:

• 1974 Steelers -- 4.32 YPA• 1975 Steelers -- 4.64 YPA• 1973 Steelers -- 4.66 YPA• 2008 Steelers -- 4.71 YPA• 1976 Steelers -- 5.003 YPA• 1972 Steelers -- 5.002 YPA• 1979 Steelers -- 5.34 YPA• 1978 Steelers -- 5.42 YPA• 1977 Steelers -- 5.52 YPA

That's remarkable: even in this day and age of gaudy passing stats, Polamalu and the 2008 Steelers held opponents to an average of 4.71 yards every time they dropped back to pass. To put the awesomeness of that number into perspective, consider that six defenses in 2008 surrendered more than 4.71 yards per rush attempt.

But then Polamalu was injured in Week 1 last year -- against the Titans. He appeared in just five games. No coincidence that Pittsburgh' s spectacular shutdown pass defense of 2008 imploded. The 2009 Steelers surrendered 6.29 yards per attempt -- a far cry from the spectacular effort of the year before.

Polamalu was back in the lineup last week, in Pittsburgh's 15-9 home win over the Falcons, and the pass defense was back in top form. The Atlanta offense generated just 5.39 yards every time Matt Ryan dropped back to pass (Ryan's passer rating was a humble 67.6). Polamalu led the effort, including a spectacular interception at the end of regulation.

He'll make life difficult for Young and the Tennessee offense. And, if Polamalu stays healthy, history tells us he'll give the 2010 Steelers a champion-caliber defense.

Tennessee running back Chris Johnson is the most exciting player and most compelling statistical story in football right now.

The Cold, Hard Football Facts have led the CJ bandwagon (we play a mean washtub bass). In this very space on last year, we were the first outlet in the nation to declare the Tennessee running back the best ballcarrier in the NFL -- even better than Adrian Peterson.

We were mocked at the time, but these days there's no more room on the Johnson bandwagon -- not even in the oboe section.

He is Tennessee's not-so-secret weapon, and easily on pace to become the most explosive ballcarrier in the history of football. We touched on Johnson's historic explosiveness over the summer: Johnson scored seven TDs of 50-plus yards last year (5 runs, 2 catches), matching a standard set by Jim Brown in his incredible 1963 season.

Johnson added an electrifying 76-yard touchdown run against the Raiders last week: his eighth touchdown run of greater than 50 yards, in just 32 career games. The NFL itself picked up on our Cold, Hard Football Facts: the league office issued a release this week about Johnson's historic explosiveness, mirroring our summertime report.

The greatest TD threats in history are well within CJ's reach: Brown ran for 12 TDs of 50-plus yards in 118 games; Barry Sanders ran for 15 TDs of 50-plus TDs in 153 games. Johnson could surpass Brown as soon as this season, just his third NFL campaign.

It's hard to believe how far the Titans have come since Oct. 18, 2009 -- the day they fell to 0-6 after a humiliating 59-0 loss at New England, the worst beating the NFL had seen since 1976.

They're 9-2 since that day, thanks in large part to a stunning turnaround by the defense: Tennessee surrendered 198 points in the first six games of 2009 (33.0 PPG); it's surrendered just 207 points in the 11 games since (18.8 PPG).

Coupled with a quarterback who's done nothing right but win games, the most explosive ballcarrier in NFL history, a cozy home field and an opposing QB who's making just his third NFL start against a solid defense, the Titans will out-tough Pittsburgh despite another day of humble stats from Vince Young.

Tennessee 24, Pittsburgh 20