NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (6-4) at Tennessee (2-7)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - All we need is Alex Trebek or John O'Hurley to say "will the real Pittsburgh Steelers please stand up." Or perhaps even former Steelers great Lynn Swann, who also hosted one of the many reboots of "To Tell the Truth" over the years.
Maybe they could help us explain the up-and-down nature of Mike Tomlin's club, which will try to get back to its winning ways on "Monday Night Football" against the struggling Tennessee Titans.
Playing the two-win Titans with rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger set to make just his third career start may seem like a week off for the Steelers until you realize Pittsburgh has already suffered setbacks to the one-win Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the two-win New York Jets.
The Steelers began the season with a win-loss pattern that lasted through the first six games of the campaign until breaking it with three consecutive triumphs, starting with a win over Houston and finishing it with back-to-back six-touchdown games for Ben Roethlisberger against Indianapolis and Baltimore.
Any hopes the struggles were safely left behind in the rear-view mirror evaporated in Week 10, however, when Michael Vick turned back the clock and the hapless Jets snapped their eight-game losing streak at the expense of Pittsburgh.
Vick threw two touchdown passes in the first quarter and flashed his vintage rushing technique while leading the beleaguered Jets to a 20-13 victory. The upset over one of the NFL's hottest teams came amid calls for New York's leadership to be replaced and ended the franchise's worst skid in 18 years.
It was as unlikely an outcome as there has been anywhere in the league this season, especially considering how good Roethlisberger was during his team's three-game winning streak.
"Big Ben" set an NFL record by throwing 12 touchdown passes in the previous two games and hadn't thrown an interception in over three games, but was picked off twice by Jets safety Jaiquawn Jarrett.
Even Antonio Brown, the sure-handed receiver who led the NFL in catches and receiving yards coming in, had a bad game. He had two fumbles in the first half. Jarrett recovered one of them.
Roethlisberger did throw for 343 yards, bringing his total to 1,470 in the last four games. He had an 80-yard touchdown throw to Martavis Bryant with 76 seconds left.
"The reality is we shot ourselves in the foot," said Tomlin. "You're not going to win any football games minus-four in the turnover game."
The loss left Pittsburgh one-half game behind first-place Cleveland entering the weekend in an ultra-tough AFC North where every team is at lest two games above .500.
"Everyone's right there together," said veteran defensive lineman Brett Keisel when talking about the North, which is the first division in which every team is at least two games above water since the 1935 NFL Western Division. "We need to assert ourselves."
The Titans, meanwhile, have dropped three in a row and seven of eight overall, including a 21-7 setback in Baltimore during Week 10.
Mettenberger completed 16 of his 27 attempts for one touchdown and a late interception in his second NFL start. Fellow rookie Bishop Sankey amassed 58 yards on 17 carries, while Leon Washington posted his club's lone TD.
"He did some good things today, made some good throws," Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt, a former tight ends coach and offensive coordinator with the Steelers from 2001-2006, said of Mettenberger. "I think he did a nice job of operating today in this environment, which is not easy. But obviously, we have to be more productive."
Pittsburgh leads its all-time series with the Titans franchise with a 41-31 mark. On Monday nights the Steelers are an imposing 41-24 and the Titans/Houston Oilers are 21-16.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Playing down to the competition has been an issue since Tomlin took over the Steelers back in 2007, especially away from Heinz Field where Pittsburgh has suffered six different defeats against teams who have been playing at less than a 30 percent clip.
Turnovers have been the main culprit in those hiccups and that same narrative doomed the Steelers in North Jersey against the lowly Jets.
"The ability is there, it's just about going out and doing it," defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. "We have to have our focus and mindset on the Titans this week. We can't forget what happened, but we have to move past it. We have to move in the right direction and clean up the stuff."
The even bigger issue for Pittsburgh this season has been slow starts away from the Steel City. The Steelers have been outscored 88-26 in the first quarter of road games and have allowed an NFL-worst 36 points on their opponents' first offensive possession.
"It's the NFL, if you don't show up ready to play your type of game, you're going to lose," Pittsburgh wide receiver Lance Moore said. "Our last game was a perfect example of that. We're hot. We came in high and mighty and a team came in and played better than us."
None of that necessarily plays to the strength of the Titans, though, who have managed just one field goal in all of their opening drives. Tennessee did play well in the first quarter in Baltimore but slowed dramatically from there as the Ravens adjusted and threw more zone coverage at Mettenberger.
"Early in the first half we did a lot of good things to kind of counteract their guys," the rookie said. "We just got to continue to ... play like that for 60 minutes."
Mettenberger, who was sacked five times by the Ravens, is intent on sharpening his reads and making quicker decisions.
"You try to have an internal clock, that lets you know when it's time, but with the defensive linemen that they have, the clock goes a lot faster," Mettenberger said. "I know I need to play a lot smarter. This is a quarterback driven league."
Mettenberger, has been OK in his first two starts, throwing for 478 yards and three touchdowns, will be facing a Pittsburgh defense that will likely be without several defensive starters.
With the Steelers' bye week looming after this contest, veteran safety Troy Polamalu (knee), rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) are not expected to play against the Titans, who still plan on playing hard despite what looks like a lost season.
"I have worked too hard personally to listen to anybody that tells me to go out and tank a season," receiver Nate Washington, an ex-Steeler, told the Tennessean. "I wouldn't know the meaning of that. To those naysayers who think we should go out and mail it in the rest the season, maybe they shouldn't go to work for the next month and see if they expect a paycheck.
"Let's see how it works out for them. I can't see one individual in here that would be able to look at himself in mirror if they tanked it. Not one guy is comfortable with that. This is a prideful group of guys, and no matter what the scoreboard is everyone is going to give his all."
The Steelers are obviously explosive but should look at relying on their running game a little bit now this week. Tennessee has struggled mightily against the run recently and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell has proven to be one of the most improved players in the NFL with LeGarrette Blount serving as an able change of pace.
The only thing consistent about the Steelers this season has been their inconsistency but there is one trend that has stood the test of time, Dick LeBeau against rookie quarterbacks.
Since the Hall of Fame defensive coordinator returned to Pittsburgh in 2004, the Steelers are an imposing 18-2 against first-year signal callers.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 24, Titans 14
11/14 11:31:58 ET