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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (1-0) at Tennessee (1-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Dennis Dixon did just enough in place of the suspended Ben Roethlisberger to earn another start at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season.
That has kind of been the war cry of Vince Young's career so far with the Tennessee Titans.
A pair of Week 1 winners hope to make it two in a row this Sunday, as Pittsburgh pays a visit to LP Field to battle Tennessee.
The Steelers knew when Roethlisberger was handed what is now a four-game suspension from the NFL this offseason that they might have trouble getting off to a quick start. Pittsburgh looked like it was playing it safe offensively in its season opener with the Atlanta Falcons, running the ball 31 times to 26 pass attempts by Dixon.
Playing it safe only led to three field goals by Jeff Reed in regulation, but luckily the defense was able to limit the Falcons to the same amount before the offense finally broke out to win it in overtime. After Pittsburgh prevented Atlanta from scoring on the first drive of the extra session, Rashard Mendenhall scampered 50 yards for a touchdown to give his team a 15-9 win.
Though Dixon didn't light up the field, a win is a win, so he will make his third NFL start in this game despite the return of Byron Leftwich to practice this week. Leftwich was slated to be the starter in Roethlisberger's absence before suffering a sprained knee ligament in the team's last preseason game.
"It starts that we won, and I thought that he got better as the game went on," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of Dixon on Tuesday.
Tomlin also said that starting left tackle Max Starks, rumored to be out a month because of severe high ankle sprain, has a less serious injury and may be able to play this weekend. Defensive tackle Casey Hampton, meanwhile, suffered a hamstring injury that has his status in question.
After picking up their eighth straight home-opening win, the Steelers carry a four-game overall winning streak dating back to last season into this contest, the first of two straight on the road for Tomlin's club.
The Titans know a little something about how crushing a slow start can be after beginning last year with an 0-6 record. Tennessee rebounded to win eight of its final 10 games, but did not make the playoffs.
The team hopes to avoid another slow start after putting together a solid 38-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders this past weekend.
Young threw a pair of touchdown passes, improving to 7-1 as a starter at home since 2008, and Chris Johnson posted 142 rushing yards with two scores to notch his 12th straight 100-yard rushing game. That is the second-longest such run in NFL history, behind only Barry Sanders' 14-game tear.
The Raiders did their best to contain Johnson, but the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year broke off a 76-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
"I feel like we're carrying momentum," Johnson said. "Any time you start out 0-6 and win eight of the last 10 games, you can carry that to next year."
Sunday's win was the Titans' sixth in its last seven home games.
The Steelers own a 39-29 edge in the all-time regular season series with the Titans, including the latter franchise's years as the Houston Oilers. Pittsburgh was a 13-10 home overtime winner when the clubs last met, in the Thursday night opener of the 2009 NFL season. A 33-yard Reed field goal won the game for the Steelers in overtime. Tennessee won the previous meeting, a 31-14 affair at LP Field in 2008. The Steelers last won in Nashville in 2001.
In addition to the regular season history, Pittsburgh has a 3-1 advantage in the postseason series between the clubs. The Steelers defeated the then-Oilers in 1978 and 1979 AFC Championship Games at Three Rivers Stadium, and were 26-23 overtime winners at the Astrodome in a 1989 AFC First-Round Playoff. Tennessee's lone win in the playoff series was a 34-31 overtime victory in a 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff played in Nashville.
Including playoffs, the Steelers are 0-3 at Tennessee since winning there during the 2001 regular season.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher is 12-8 against the Steelers in his career, while Tomlin is 1-1 against both Fisher and Tennessee as a head coach.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
The Steelers kept Dixon on a short leash versus the Falcons, as 143 of the club's 354 yards of offense came on the ground. Tomlin also made sure that he kept his quarterback upright, as Dixon was only credited with two rushing attempts himself. Mendenhall handled the bulk of the run duties and finished with 22 carries for 120 yards. When Dixon did have to throw, he looked towards a veteran target in Hines Ward, with the reliable 34-year-old leading the team with six catches for 108 yards. Ward hit a pair of milestones in the win, becoming the 24th player in NFL history and first Steeler to surpass 11,000 receiving yards, while also becoming the 12th player in league annals to reach 900 career receptions. The wideout needs two more touchdowns to pass Jerome Bettis (80) for the second-most in team history. He should get his chances, given how much attention Dixon gave him last week. Tight end Heath Miller was second among Steelers with four catches for 40 yards last week, while Mike Wallace -- replacing Santonio Holmes as the No. 2 receiver this year -- made just two catches but racked up 62 yards. The bulk of that total came on a 52- yard reception in the third quarter. Dixon was sacked three times, making Starks' potential absence a concern.
The Titans will look to put similar pressure on Dixon one week after notching four sacks versus the Raiders. Linebacker Will Witherspoon (6 tackles), end Jason Babin (2 tackles) and 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan all brought down the quarterback in their Tennessee regular-season debuts, while end Jacob Ford also notched a sack along with a forced fumble. Witherspoon's sack was especially uplifting, as he was playing less than a week after the death of his mother at the age of 56. Tennessee converted two Oakland turnovers into 10 points, including a short passing touchdown from Young to tight end Bo Scaife that was set up by an interception by safety and former Steeler Chris Hope (4 tackles). Safety Michael Griffin led Tennessee with 12 tackles, while cornerback Jason McCourty added eight. The Titans will hope their secondary doesn't have to make as many tackles this week, though, after Oakland's ground game broke through for 135 yards on 25 attempts, good for a 5.4 yard average per carry.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Though Young just keeps winning and winning, the Titans know that their offense goes through Johnson. The league's leading rusher with 2,006 yards last year, Johnson carried the ball 27 times a week ago and is averaging 145.6 rushing yards per game in his last seven contests at home. He has faced the Steelers twice before and has a total of 126 rushing yards with a touchdown. Tennessee's other 12 carries last week were distributed between second-year backup Javon Ringer (5 carries, 33 yards) and Young (7 carries, 30 yards). Ringer also notched the first touchdown of his eight-game career, a 15-yard score in the second quarter. Young shook off an early fumble to complete 13 of his 17 pass attempts for 154 yards, finding Nate Washington and Scaife for touchdown receptions. Washington, who spent 2005-08 with the Steelers, hauled in a 56-yard touchdown catch and ended with three grabs for 88 yards. He made just one catch in his first and only other career game versus the Steelers, which took place in last year's opener. If the Steelers somehow manage to shut down Johnson, Young will need more production from the rest of his wideouts, a unit that failed to log a catch from anyone other than Washington.
The Steelers won't be looking at Johnson with dropped jaws after holding the Falcons to a mere 58 yards rushing last week. Atlanta Pro Bowl back Michael Turner ran 19 times against the Pittsburgh defense, coming away with just 42 yards and a 2.2 average. The Steelers also held Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan to 252 yards on 27-of-44 passing. Linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley logged sacks, with two of Harrison's nine tackles going for losses. Woodley notched at least a half of a sack for the ninth straight game. Safety Troy Polamalu (5 tackles), who was limited to just five games due to injury in 2009, snatched his first interception since last Nov. 9 and had the 21st pick of his career. Cornerback Bryant McFadden (14 tackles) and linebacker Lawrence Timmons (11 tackles) led the way on the stat sheet for a Steelers defense did not allow a touchdown in the opener. Hampton ended with just one tackle and will likely be replaced in the starting lineup this weekend by Chris Hoke, who has made 15 career starts since 2001.
As long Dixon is starting, or even with Leftwich under center, Mendenhall will continue to be an excellent start at running back, as Tomlin showed he is going to ride the young back during Roethlisberger's suspension. Dixon doesn't figure to be a factor in the fantasy realm, but it looks as if Ward is his safety valve and should be worth a start. Owners of Wallace and tight end Heath Miller were frustrated by last week's lack of production, but Dixon's presence under center will continue to make them risky plays. Reed, meanwhile, brings solid value to the kicker spot and the Steelers defense is always worth a look, even against a Johnson-led offense.
Speaking of Johnson, he is the lone must-start of Tennessee's lineup. Young is always good for solid but not spectacular numbers, though's he's always a threat to run in a score in to boost his fantasy prospects. Without a true game-breaking wide receiver, the likes of Washington, Justin Gage and Kenny Britt will put up inconsistent numbers. The Titans defense struggled at times versus a subpar Oakland club, but their value goes up a bit due to Dixon getting the start. Kicker Rob Bironas should get some looks due to Johnson's ability to get the ball deep into opponent zones.
This matchup should be a fun one to watch, with Johnson going up against one of the better defenses in the league. Both clubs are looking to avoid a slow start for different reasons, as the Steelers are trying to weather the storm with regard to Roethlisberger's suspension while the Titans don't want a repeat of last year. The loss of Roethlisberger seems to swing the pendulum Tennessee's way, but you can never count the hard-playing Steelers out. Ultimately, Young will make one fewer mistake than Dixon and the Titans will take advantage of its home-field edge as Tennessee could be doing some more "Terrible Towel" stomping.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Titans 20, Steelers 13
09/16 12:49:01 ET