Thursday, October 06, 2011

Please Don't Let CJ Murder Us: Steelers vs. Titans Preview

My analysis for Sunday's game against Tennessee basically comes down to the title of this post.  Chris Johnson is a game-murdering death stick on two legs.  If you thought the Steeler defense looked slow and old against Ray Rice and Arian Foster, then they are going to look like a bunch of 90 year old women with two arthritic hips against Johnson.

Since Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton didn't practice today and James Harrison has been ruled out, that means that, with Jason Worilds also out, Larry Foote is going to be playing Lawrence Timmons' position and Timmons is going to be replacing Harrison.  Two guys hurt, two guys playing out of position.  On a defense that has already had issues stopping the run.  I like Chris Hoke.  I like Ziggy Hood.  I'm glad that Keisel is going to be back.  They all represent speed upgrades on defense.  But, against Johnson, you're still talking about a bunch of turtles on Red Bull as opposed to a bunch of regular turtles.

Johnson has taken a while to get back up to speed after his holdout, but he gained 101 yards on 23 carries against Cleveland last week and says that he now feels comfortable with the new blocking schemes and linemen in front of him.  That is incredibly bad news for the Steelers.  If this were 2004-2010, I would say that the best course of action would be to line up and have the Titans try their best.  Historically, it's been impossible to run on the Steelers, which would mean the game would be be put in Matt Hasselbeck's hands.  Historically, I would really like the odds in that situation.

But, this ain't history.  This is 2011.

First of all, the Titans went 2-1 while Johnson was struggling and Elizabeth Hasselbeck's Husband's Brother (henceforth EHHB, because I'm tired of spelling the word Hasselbeck) stepped up in a big way.  He's completing almost 67 percent of his passes and has eight touchdowns and three interceptions.  He hasn't been a turnover machine like Roethlisberger.  He's been efficient and pretty explosive, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt (which is better than Roethlisberger is averaging).

So, you have EHHB and CJ, which is a lethal combination.  The Titans gave up 350 passing yards last week to a pretty pedestrian Browns pass offense, but they also limited a pretty good running team to 3.8 yards per carry.  Colt McCoy was sacked only four times in 65 dropbacks, but Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach are slightly better than Jonathan Scott/Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu/Doug Legursky.  If Ben Roethlisberger and his gammy left foot drop back to pass 65 times on Sunday, he will be sacked more than four times.

Oh, yeah.  Roethlisberger is hurt.  Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore did not practice.  That means that Isaac Redman is going to be the lead back (possibly the only back).  Still, I think the Steelers adjust enough on offense and Redman will play well enough behind a spotty offensive line, that this game will not be an embarrassing blowout.  Tennessee has a pretty good defense, but they're not as good as Baltimore or Houston, so the Steelers should be able to score some points.

But, the only way they can score enough points to win is if they stop Chris Johnson.  In previous seasons, they may have stopped Johnson by sound gap discipline, winning battles at the point of attack, and taking away cutback lanes with back side pursuit.  This season, they don't seem to be able to do that.  If Johnson sees the kinds of huge holes and wide open cutback lanes that Foster saw last week, he is going to destroy the Steelers defense.  EHHB will pick up whatever points and yardage are left over.

The other way to stop Johnson is to keep the ball the hell away from him so that he doesn't get to touch it.  The best way to do that is by running the ball effectively and holding a hefty advantage in time of possession.  That will keep the ball away from Johnson, it will keep the old, tired defense off the field, and it will also keep Roethlisberger from dropping back 65 times, which would probably result in his death (or at least maiming). 

In order to keep the Titans from crushing an already ailing Roethlisberger, Bruce Arians should call more short passes.  It seems like Mike Wallace gains an average of 15 yards on every one of those hitch screens they throw him, so how about throwing more than one of those a game?  How about throwing two to Wallace, one to Emmanuel Sanders and maybe a bubble screen or two to Antonio Brown just to mix things up?

What I'm proposing is not a radical concept, but talking about it and doing it are two different things entirely.  The Steelers were able to successfully implement this strategy in Week 2 against the Seahawks, but Seattle is nowhere near as good a team as the Titans.  They're too strong and too talented for the Steelers to be able to lean on them until they fall over.  But, the only other option is to keep trying to score by throwing the ball and keep giving the ball back to Johnson.  That strategy has a higher probability of failure.

The only upside is that they're at home and they've got the "us against the world" mentality going for them, which is almost as effective a motivator as Mike Tomlin.  We'll see if the home crowd and a psychological edge are enough to overcome the physical and talent mismatches.

I doubt they do.

Titans 21, Steelers 13

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