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Pregame Projection: Pittsburgh Steelers versus Tennessee Titans

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On Sunday, September 8, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open the 2013 NFL Season by hosting the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The AFC rivals will square off for their sixth consecutive season meetings. Both teams are coming off of mediocre seasons, 6-10 and 8-8 records respectively, and both have the desire to improve their overall performance following 2012 seasons where both missed the playoffs. Following draft pick, free agent moves and the addition of new personnel, the Steelers and Titans will battle to get a win to start off the new year in better fashion. In this list, we will look at how the two teams stack up against each other in a pregame projection.

The Steelers lead the series between the Tennessee Titans (and when Tennessee was first the Houston Oilers), 44-31. The two teams have faced off on opening day five times in their history. Once AFC Central Division rivals following the NFL and AFL merger, the Steelers and Oilers battled to get to the top against the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns. Although no longer division rivals, games between the two teams are generally hard-fought battles of history, pride and stair steps to the top of the AFC Conference.

"We want to start this season off rolling in the right direction," said linebacker Larry Foote. "We are excited. A lot of people have been dogging us, we're used to that, but it's going to be a big challenge against the Titans." The motivation is exacerbated following losses the last two seasons on opening day, although the Steelers have won their last 10 home openers and hold the longest active streak in the NFL. Cornerback Cortez Allen may have emphasized the importance of the game best when he said, "It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the season."

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Quarterbacks - Steelers vs. Titans
Quarterbacks - Steelers vs. Titans Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Quarterbacks - Steelers vs. Titans

No one can extend a play like Ben Roethlisberger. The two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback has the ability to avoid the Titans pass rush and throw accurately on the run, if necessary. Although the offensive line was shaky for the Steelers in preseason play, Roethlisberger was still effective inside and outside the pocket. A durable field general, Roethlisberger should be able to keep the offense moving as long as protection doesn't break down. Jake Locker has a lot to prove to the Titans. He has the arm strength and accuracy on target to throw downfield, but his ability to recognize the pass rush of the Steelers' defense could be a cause for concern. After a below average performance in his 11 starts in 2012, Locker will look to improve on a 74.0 quarterback rating, but he'll be facing the Steelers' number one pass defense. Battle advantage: Pittsburgh
Offenses - Steelers vs Titans
Offenses - Steelers vs Titans Elsa/Getty Images

Offenses - Steelers vs Titans

The Titans have offensive weapons that could hurt any team in the NFL. The offensive line has been revamped, but their best option isn't relying on Locker. Instead, Tennessee will unleash running back Chris Johnson. Since his entrance into the NFL in 2008, Johnson has produced 6,888 rushing yards. If the line doesn't provide the blocking lanes necessary for Johnson to slip through, the Titans will have a hard time scoring. Receiver Nate Washington has a nagging ankle injury and Kenny Britt has to worry about his knee. Britt has the ability to make big plays, but Tennessee's 22nd ranked pass offense can't carry the team. The Steelers are dealing with their own updated offensive line. Although they have Pro-Bowler Maurkice Pouncey at center, even he has struggled in the preseason to keep opposing defenses from slipping through to hurry quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Running back Isaac Redman will get the starting nod for the Steelers, but will have to prove he's more effective or Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling will have to come in and provide backup. Receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will have some help with the addition of rookie Markus Wheaton. Without Roethlisberger's favorite target, Heath Miller, it is possible that Kelvin Beachum will be used to help with pass protection and likely that David Paulson will act more as a blocker than a viable option on short passing situations. Battle advantage: Pittsburgh (slight)
Defenses - Steelers vs Titans
Defenses - Steelers vs Titans Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Defenses - Steelers vs Titans

Although the Steelers lost James Harrison, they added rookie Jarvis Jones.  While Jones isn't expected to start, Jason Worilds has stepped up to provide a healthy dose of defensive nastiness.  Safety Troy Polamalu is healthy and is ready to be as disruptive as possible.  While the defensive backs for the Steelers have, at times, had communication issues during the preseason, Dick LeBeau and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake will be focused on making sure everyone knows their assignments.  Although ranked number one on defense in 2012, it will take a team effort to reach that goal again in 2013.

The Titans have yet to find a way to put adequate pressure on their opponents' quarterbacks and hope that defensive end Kamerion Wimbley will put up more than six sacks in 2013.  Tennessee's run defense did little to stop rushing attacks last season either.  The Titans will count on Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard to keep the Steelers honest on offense and hope for turnovers.

Battle advantage:  Pittsburgh

Special Teams
Special Teams Getty Images

Special Teams

Tennessee will rely on Brett Kern to get the height and distance needed on punts.  As for kicker Rob Bironas, his performance in 2012 was less than stellar (25-of-31 on field goals).  Bironas will need to improve against the Steelers as Tennessee will need to put numbers on the scoreboard however they can to win.  Their special teams caused nightmares for the Steelers during their 2012 meeting during Week 6, blocking a Drew Butler punt and recovering it on the one-yard line.

Although the Steelers made some critical mistakes during the preseason on special teams, Pittsburgh has replaced punter Drew Butler with Zoltan Mesko.  Shaun Suisham (celebrating an unbelievable field goal success in photo) has been money, not just at Heinz Field, putting the ball through the uprights 28-of-31 times.  With improvements in the kicking game, the Steelers will need their special teams players to stop returners quickly and prevent costly mistakes.  They will also need their own returners and special teams players to find ways to get the offense into good field position without costly mistakes.

Battle advantage:  Too close to call

Winner of Game - Steelers vs Titans
Winner of Game - Steelers vs Titans Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Winner of Game - Steelers vs Titans

Every NFL game is one of attrition.  Both teams will need to play smart and keep key players healthy.  As far as coaching, Mike Tomlin and company have the advantage.  Tomlin's record on opening day is 4-2 since he became the Steelers' head coach in 2007.  At home, the Steelers always have the advantage when it comes to the 12th player – the fans.  With defensive wizard Dick LeBeau on the sidelines, the Titans are sure to see a lot of mixed defensive rush schemes that will keep them on their toes. 

Titans head coach Mike Munchak has three years under his belt in Tennessee and was able to predict the Steelers in 2012, but will have to provide answers to new weapons and the zone blocking scheme the Steelers have added to their offense this season.

Result:  Steelers win