NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (2-2) at Tennessee (1-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The banged-up Pittsburgh Steelers hope to kick start their first winning streak of the season when they get back to work after a short week of preparation against the struggling Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
The Steelers climbed to the .500 mark last Sunday thanks to a thrilling last second win over intrastate rival Philadelphia. Shaun Suisham kicked a 34-yard field goal as time expired in that one to lift Pittsburgh over the Eagles, 16-14.
"We had the ball last," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Such is life."
Pittsburgh welcomed back several injured starters in that one, including running back Rashard Mendenhall, who revitalized a stagnant running game and finished with 101 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.
"I felt comfortable throughout the week," Mendenhall said. "I wanted to play the best I could and I was able to do that."
Pittsburgh also reaped the return of former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, who had not played this season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee.
However, fellow linebacker Lamarr Woodley went down with a strained right hamstring and the return of star safety Troy Polamalu was short-lived as the veteran Pro bowler aggravated a right calf injury which caused him to miss the previous two games.
Polamalu will sit against Tennessee on Thursday while Woodley has been listed as doubtful.
"We're at the early portion of the season and we've got to be smart with how we deal with that," Tomlin said when talking about injuries.
Mendenhall, who is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the final game of the 2011 regular season, picked up 31 yards on a game- winning drive against Philadelphia that lasted the final 6:33.
Ben Roethlisberger finished with 207 yards on 21-of-37 passes for Pittsburgh, which used an early bye week to recover from a 34-31 loss to the Raiders in Week 3.
The presence of Harrison buoyed a defense which ranks fifth in the NFL, allowing 280.0 yards per game. The road, however, has been a problem for the Steelers early in the season and the team has allowed 65 points in defeats at Denver and Oakland.
The Titans continued to struggle in Minneapolis last Sunday, getting routed by the Vikings 30-7. Matt Hasselbeck, who started in place of an injured Jake Locker (shoulder), was 26-for-43 passing for 200 yards and a touchdown.
Chris Johnson had another poor performance for Tennessee, rushing for just 24 yards on 15 carries and fumbling once.
Hasselbeck will get the call again this week as Locker, the promising second- year player out of Washington, remains sidelined.
"You're a professional football team and you have to be ready no matter who is behind center," Titans tight end Jared Cook said. "You have to make those adjustments."
Pittsburgh leads the all-time series with the Tennessee franchise 41-29 but is just 2-7 in the Volunteer State since the former Houston Oilers relocated there in 1997.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Tennessee, which ranks 27th in the NFL at just 17.6 points a game, has to find a way to get Johnson rolling and open up play- action for Hasselbeck.
Before his extended holdout last season Johnson was arguably the best back in the NFL. Now he looks stuck in quicksand and hasn't been able to crack 3.0 yards a carry through five games. The Titans do have some weapons outside now that Kenny Britt is back from the ankle injury to team with Nate Washington and the emerging Kendall Wright while Cook is more than capable of occupying the seam.
With 14 years of wear and tear on his body, however, Hasselbeck is no longer a Pro Bowl-type signal caller, although he does understand the game, still has a quick release and has more than enough arm to get the ball where it needs to be.
That said, it all hinges of the running game. Hasselbeck isn't going to beat many NFL teams if he has to put the ball in the air 40-plus times.
"It's frustrating," Titans coach Mike Munchak said when talking about his team's struggles. "We know this is our big opportunity to hopefully change the opinion of a lot of people by how we play on Thursday night."
The Steelers defense still strikes fear in most but they're a banged-up bunch. Harrison has not returned to his All-Pro form yet and with both Polamalu and Woodley likely out in Nashville, that could open some doors that would normally be shut for Tennessee.
Roethlisberger, who needs 300 pass yards to surpass Terry Bradshaw (27,989) for most in team history, leads a unit that has an NFL-best 53.2 percent 3rd- down conversion rate and Mendenhall's return only makes the Steelers' offense more balanced.
That's a problem for a Tennessee team which has given up an NFL-high 181 points so far and has been outscored by a league-worst 93.
"Playing in four days against a good team might be the best thing for us," Munchak said. "We can play much, much better. This is the group we have and with this group, we have to play much better, and we have to do it quickly."
Pittsburgh hasn't looked like a serious contender to this point but the Titans have been overmatched more often than not and Johnson has been particularly ineffective.
The Steelers will put as many in the box as they need to stop Johnson and try to force Hasselbeck to beat them with his right arm.
"We just need to respect the fact that we have yet to (win on the road) this year and we have an opportunity on Thursday night," Tomlin said.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Titans 10
10/10 09:36:53 ET