Pregame Zone Blitz: New-Look Steelers Host Titans in Week 5

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 02: Running back Peyton Hillis #40 of the Cleveland Browns is tackled by defenders Will Witherspoon #92 and William Hayes #95 of the Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sometimes, a team needs to take a step back before it can take two steps forward.

It harkens Steelers fans back to 2004, when injuries came early and often. Out went Tommy Maddox, and in came Ben Roethlisberger. Out went Casey Hampton, in came Chris Hoke. Kendall Simmons went down and Keydrick Vincent stepped in.

The Steelers won 14 straight regular season games, and led the league in rush defense while finishing second in rushing offense.

It's not impossible to think the Steelers can become stronger in the face of adversity.

It's troubling, though, the reasons behind why no one is giving the Titans any significant credit. Overall, they are playing as well as any other team in the NFL, and they have their injuries too. These storylines and more in this week's PZB.

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

Chris Hope, the starting free safety on the Steelers' Super Bowl XL team, and current Titans free safety, broke his forearm in Tennessee's 31-13 win over Cleveland in Week 4.

Yes, Tennessee is playing that well, says Music City Miracle's Daniel Reese.

Don't expect much success on 3rd-and-1, writes Tennessean reporter John Glennon.

Last Game

It wasn't long ago the Steelers were taken behind the shed by Philadelphia. The Eagles sacked Roethlisberger nine times, and perhaps could have broken the NFL record for sacks in a game if not for Roethlisberger's heroics in simply escaping the "pocket" formed for him.

That game had a similar feel to Sunday's 17-10 loss at Houston. Enormous defensive pressure dialed up from a veteran coordinator and some excellent individual players. The difference from that game to this one lies in what we can't see now. The Steelers eventually made their way to a Super Bowl championship, despite leaky pass protection.

The question now is how long can the offense hold up without the semblance of consistent protection? Unfortunately, they'll have to figure it out without Roethlisberger, and therein lays the main difference between the championship Steelers and the current version. Roethlisberger was able to withstand the early season protection problems then, but a bizarre low-hit from rookie DE J.J. Watt will put him on the sidelines for a few weeks.

Debts of past pass pro failures are coming due. And with a must-win game scheduled with Tennessee Sunday, we're going to find out quickly whether Ben should rush back or not.

Us Against The World

How utterly ridiculous is it that James Harrison makes a football act and gets fined $75,000, and Richard Seymour, despite whatever happened to provoke him, slugs a player on national TV in full view of the cameras and knocks him to the ground -- and gets fined $25,000. Weak. Very weak.

Peter King

This is written knowing it may all change by this afternoon, but at the time of publication, no fine has been reported to have been given to Texans LT Duane Brown for his hit on James Harrison.

Now it becomes motivation for a defense that only needs a reason to start getting physical.

One of their leaders, James Harrison, lies with a single eye due to a helmet-to-helmet hit by an offensive lineman. That lineman escaped the $15,000 fine that has marked the 2011 season with a big "$15K" X.

At least as of Friday, it appears Week 4 will be the first that neither a Steelers player nor a player of their opponent will be fined.  Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey picked up a $7,500 fine for his late-hit/block in the back penalty. Seems to PZB Brown's helmet-to-helmet was worthy, as was J.J. Watt "tripping" and falling into Roethlisberger's legs.

A defender typically needs only to pass gas around Tom Brady, and he's screaming at the ref for a penalty. Penalties on Tom Terrific are met immediately with retribution by the league.

Nothing for Ben? No protection for the defensive players?

Nope. "We gotta protect ourselves," say the Steelers. Let's keep it within the rules, but let's go out and punch these pansies square in the mouth. It's time to return to Steelers football.

Remember James Harrison, and play with his level of aggression and physicality.

Opponent Spotlight: Defensive Line

We're stepping out of the standard one-player analysis due to a basic Hack Journalist 101 lesson: If it's what you're seeing, it's what you should be writing.

By watching Tennessee's last few games, there are lots of good things to see. Their passing game, while hampered by the absence of Kenny Britt, is still very effective and explosive. The running game is starting to emerge after a slow start. Their secondary is playing as well as anyone's in football.

But that defensive line keeps popping off the screen.

The league's leading scoring defense (14 points a game) is getting it done up front in an impressive fashion. They go seven deep along the line, and are getting good production out of all of them.

Rookie DT Jurell Casey is quickly proving to be a steal, considering the Titans got him in the third round out of USC. He's flanked inside by veteran Shaun Smith, forming a potent run stuffing tandem inside.

Karl Klug, another impressive rookie, subs in at both tackle positions, adding speed to the mix. Against Cleveland, he made a nice move to get into the Browns backfield, and ran down Josh Cribbs from behind. Needless to say, most 275 pound defensive tackles don't catch Cribbs when he has the ball in his hands.

Jason Jones has torched the Steelers in the past, and he looks to be just as quick off the defensive left edge as he's always been. Dave Ball joins Smith as the only two guys in the group above the age of 29. Jones and Ball both play the defensive end position from the 7-technique - off the tackle's outside shoulder, making it difficult for the tackle to beat them to the angle. Making matters worse, LB Will Witherspoon is playing excellent football, and oftentimes will be seen blitzing the gap between the ends and tackles. He rushes as well as a lineman and covers as well as any linebacker.

They present the best defensive line the Steelers have seen this season, and considering Titans head coach Mike Munchak rotates them all so frequently, they'll have a fresh combination of them in most of the game.

Steelers Spotlight:  LB Lawrence Timmons

Every season brings a time where a player has to do something for the sake of the team. Week 5 will be Timmons' turn. He'll be shifted from inside to the outside, where he'll face the imposing LT Michael Roos, in absence of Harrison.

This will provide some evidence on what traits, exactly, are needed to play the glorious outside ‘backer position in Dick Lebeau's defense.

Look at some of the prototype models of Blitzburgh's strongest weapons; Joey Porter (tall, lean-but-muscular, quick, relentless), Jason Gildon (Big, powerful, dominating), James Harrison (immovable, relentless, explosive).

Lawrence Timmons? Other-worldly athletic, quick, sure-tackler. It's tough to say he really fits the mold of some of the previous OLBs, but has that mold really been challenged recently? Harrison is far shorter than  your Porter Prototype, but Joey Porters don't come off the assembly line quite as quietly as they used to. Denver's Von Miller last year, and Washington's Brian Orakpo a few years ago show the emphasis teams are putting on outside linebackers, and they don't even have to be 3-4 defenses. Miller just rushes the passer in a similar fashion to Harrison, but he's doing it out of a 4-down alignment.

Can the Steelers use an inside linebacker on the edge in a 3-4? Can they emphasize pure athleticism instead of the power of Harrison or the explosion of Porter? Can Timmons just simple out-athlete a tackle play after play?

A big part of the reason the Steelers drafted Timmons - the first first round pick of the Mike Tomlin Era - was that freak athleticism. Those "quick-twitch" muscles, as they're called. He has an athletic advantage over so many offensive players, the big guys in particular.

Not that the Steelers drafting policy will depend solely on Timmons play Sunday, but he could have a high level of success, providing evidence that perhaps he's more effective just pursuing the quarterback. That could lead them to begin evaluating potential outside linebackers not just as the former college defensive ends like LaMarr Woodley, or just guys who can lay the smack, like Harrison.

Maybe it doesn't have to be as much physical anymore.

We'll find out, but Timmons very well could provide a shot to the arm of a defense that isn't landing home on the QB as often as it should be, and because of that, they have one turnover.

I See You

I see you, Ben Roethlisberger. I see you for basically taking it on the chin (and in the leg. Again) for the sake of the whole team. PZB is never one to point out how well someone is doing as an example of how poorly someone else is doing, but cripes, man, you had zero help in Week 4. You escape a fierce pass rush for the umpteenth time that game, fire a perfect pass to Hines Ward across the middle, and before the defender has a chance to lay a hit on him, Ward already had lost control of it.

The Texans rushed nine defenders - NINE - multiple times in the second half, and you must have been drooling at the sight of Mike Wallace under press coverage at the line with no safety help. Alas, you had approximately three nanoseconds to receive the snap, get set and deliver a pass.

Not surprisingly, you weren't able to work the deeper portions of the field. Hell, you weren't able to work the short portions of the field. But you stuck it out, and were fighting straight through to the end. You were hit low yet again, and yet again, you got up and kept throwing. Sure, there were a couple of throws you wish you had back (that one to Brown in the end zone had to be particularly frustrating), but you're always gonna compete, regardless of the situation.

Heal up, we need ya now more than ever.

Key Stats

  • Tennessee's TEs are averaging 20.2 yards per catch
  • Matt Hasselbeck has a rating of 143.2 on first down (5 TD, 0 INT, 61.2 percent completion)
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