Steelers key match-ups: Linebackers need to contain Chris Johnson

Jared Wickerham

It will have to be a team approach, but Steelers inside linebackers Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons will likely have responsibility for Titans RB Chris Johnson more often than anyone else. Stop him, beat the Titans.

He's the big-play threat defenses dread.

One slipped tackle, one bad angle and Titans running back Chris Johnson can convert a 3rd-and-14. He can go 80 yards in an eye-blink or two. Whether it's Johnson getting the ball behind zone blocking, or on a screen pass, he's one of the most dangerous players in the NFL.

The Steelers linebackers have contained him in five previous games - the last being Johnson's best, 91 yards on 19 carries. But the threat is still there.

Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote have to approach him aggressively but with a high level of discipline. He reacts well to approaching tacklers, and can make people miss as often as anyone in the league.

The Titans will look to run both power and zone, basing much of their offense on two things: 1. getting Johnson the ball in space by any and all means necessary, and 2. using that threat to get quarterback Jake Locker on the move, hoping to break contain both on himself and on Johnson.

The Steelers, of all teams, know the kind of destruction wide receiver Kenny Britt can lay on a defense (four catches, 62 yards and a touchdown in Tennessee's 26-23 win last year, he had several drops as well). Expect the Titans to look for big passing plays early in order to keep Steelers safety Troy Polamalu on the high side of the field.

Without Polamalu last year, the Titans' savaged the Steelers' single high coverage. It wasn't a coincidence the Steelers attacked largely with a cover 2 look the rest of the season and their defense improved exponentially from that Week 6 game.

Polamalu will likely have responsibilities over a deep portion of the field, and the Titans will likely spread the Steelers out to ensure Polamalu isn't near the line of scrimmage. In those instances, Foote and Timmons must be cognizant of Johnson in the running game as well as the passing game.

It's a tough Week 1 match-up, but the pair has handled quality running games previously. If the linebackers - and the Steelers' defense - can contain Johnson, Pittsburgh should win this game.

That's much easier said than done, though.

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