After months of preparation, the Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 2013 season at Heinz Field on Sunday. But what kind of team will we see from the Steelers this year?
It could be a good one as the Steelers' 22 starters can compete with any team in the league, but any significant injuries could quickly make the season take a turn for the worse.
Even without top receiving targets Mike Wallace and Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger appears to be comfortable with the offense. However, the offensive line is still a work in progress and injuries to Le’Veon Bell and Isaac Redman leave a major question mark with the ground game.
These concerns along with the lack of depth are just some of the reasons why so many will bet against the Steelers. In fact, despite being heavy underdogs, more experts have the Tennessee Titans pulling out a win in Week 1.
So can the Steelers prove the experts wrong? Here are some of the key matchups to keep an eye on.
Steve McLendon vs. Rob Turner
Despite being a new starter in 2013, Steve McLendon had a relatively quiet training camp and preseason. That does not mean he won’t play a huge part of the success of the defense this season.
McLendon will be a key factor Sunday as the Steelers try to shut down the Titans running game. Chris Johnson is a tough back to play against and the defense does not want him to get to the second level. McLendon will need to control the middle of the line if the Steelers want to have success.
He will go up against Ron Turner, who had an impressive training camp according to WKRN Nashville’s Joe Biddle.
McLendon is big and strong enough to command a double team and that is exactly what he will need to do against a tough Titans interior. Tennessee boosted the middle of their line with top free-agent signing Andy Levitre and first-round draft pick Chance Warmack.
That is a lot of beef on the interior of Tennessee’s offensive line and McLendon will be in charge of winning the battle up front.
Mike Adams vs. Ropati Pitoitua/Kamerion Wimbley
Tennessee’s defense is no joke and they showed that in the preseason as they picked up six sacks against the Atlanta Falcons.
That is bad news for a Pittsburgh offensive line that is still trying to find its way in the new system under Jack Bicknell Jr. But the lineman with the most pressure will be left tackle Mike Adams. He won the left tackle job over Marcus Gilbert during training camp and he has not looked back.
Adams isn’t particularly strong in pass protection and will have to raise his game to keep Roethlisberger on his feet. He will be tested in a variety of ways as he will have to face Ropati Pitiotua on running downs and Kamerion Wimbley on passing downs.
Pitiotua is massive at 6’8” and 300 pounds and will be used to help keep Wimbley fresh so that he can maximize his pass-rushing abilities, according to USA Today.
The two-man attack from the Titans defense will give Adams a good test to start the season. Considering that neither player is an elite pass-rusher, Adams should be able to hold his own.
Troy Polamalu vs. Chris Johnson
Troy Polamalu has looked very good this preseason, but he has not been perfect. He told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he “was guessing” on a touchdown pass caught by Victor Cruz in the preseason opener and was involved in another touchdown reception.
Against the run, Polamalu has not missed a beat and has wreaked havoc behind the line of scrimmage. This will be key when defending Chris Johnson as the Steelers no longer have James Harrison on the backside pursuit.
Polamalu will be used near of the line of scrimmage where he can use his speed in defending Johnson, who remains one of the fastest running backs in the league. This will be particularly important on outside runs as the Steelers lack speed from their linebackers on the edge.
Expect Polamalu to be a disruptive force for Johnson and the Titans running game. Even if he doesn’t make the play, Polamalu should force the issue and allow his teammates to limit Johnson’s production on the ground.