|Chris Johnson and the Titans will look to open the 2009 season with a victory at defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh.|
The Titans, meanwhile, are still bitter with how last season ended, and they have been waiting for another crack at the Super Bowl champs.
The Steelers begin defense of their title against a highly motivated Titans team in the NFL opener Thursday night at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh won its record-setting sixth Super Bowl with a come-from-behind 27-23 victory over Arizona on Feb. 1. Filled with amazing plays and massive momentum swings, the game's final score came on a six-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds remaining.
The play gave the Steelers their second Lombardi Trophy in four years -- something that has been hard for the Titans to accept.
"If we would've had a chance to play them again in the AFC championship and those guys would've beat us, it would've been a little easier to swallow," Tennessee Pro Bowl safety Chris Hope said. "Being we beat the Super Bowl champions and never had a chance to compete and go play for the Super Bowl left a bad taste in our mouth."
The Titans got off to a franchise-record 10-0 start and finished an NFL-best 13-3 in 2008. One of their wins came by a 31-14 score over Pittsburgh on Dec. 21 in what looked like a preview of the AFC championship game.
While Hope is upset they didn't have a chance to meet again in the postseason, the Titans have no one to blame but themselves. They lost to Baltimore 13-10 in the divisional round, while Pittsburgh rolled through the playoffs.
The Steelers went 12-4 last season with their lone defeat in their final 10 games, including playoffs, coming at Tennessee. The contest ended with Titans running back LenDale White stomping on a Terrible Towel.
While White's antics angered the Pittsburgh faithful, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn't urging revenge.
"What the '08 Steelers did is history and it's no different than the '74-'75 Steelers as far as I'm concerned," Tomlin said. "I'm not going to concern myself with something LenDale White did a year ago.
"We're just trying to build our football team for '09, we hope that it's championship caliber. We kind of know what the destination is about because we've got a lot of people that have been there but we're going to remain focused on the journey."
Pittsburgh returns all but two starters from last year, the same number as the Titans.
Both teams will have familiar faces on the field, and they also play a similar brand of football -- relying heavily on their tough defenses.
Pittsburgh led the NFL in total defense (259.1 yards per game) and scoring defense (13.9 points per game) in 2008, while Tennessee was tied with the New York Giants for fifth in total defense (310.0) and was second in scoring defense (14.6).
In last season's meeting in Tennessee, the Steelers had little trouble moving the ball, amassing 374 total yards, but matched a season high with four turnovers. The Titans, tied with Cleveland for third in the NFL with 31 takeaways last year, took full advantage and scored 21 points off the turnovers.
Roethlisberger completed 25 of 39 passes for a season-high 329 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw two interceptions and fumbled once.
"We need to improve as a total offense. We're setting our goals high," said Roethlisberger, who threw for 3,301 yards, 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season. "We need to be better. We just can't rely on our defense to win every game for us."
The Steelers' offense revolves around its ground attack, and the team hopes running back Willie Parker can return to form after injuries slowed him in 2008.
After three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Parker was limited to 791 yards on 291 carries as he struggled with knee and shoulder injuries during the final three months and into the playoffs. Starting the season against Tennessee's formidable defensive front should provide a tough test for Parker, who managed 31 yards on 19 carries in the teams' matchup last year.
Pittsburgh envisions a bigger role for running back Rashard Mendenhall, the 23rd overall pick in the 2008 draft. He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the fourth game last season.
An offense featuring two running backs worked very well for the Titans last year.
Pro Bowler Chris Johnson rushed for 1,228 yards while White gained 773, and the two have set a 2009 goal of becoming the fifth duo in NFL history to run for 1,000 yards apiece. Known as Smash and Dash, the players combined for 117 yards and two TDs against the Steelers in December.
Tennessee opponents will likely to continue stacking defenders at the line to stop the run, daring 16-year veteran Kerry Collins to beat them through the air.
Collins replaced 2006 Rookie of the Year Vince Young as the starter in the second game of 2008. While Collins was able to provide a steady presence under center, the Titans were ranked 27th in the league in passing at 176.2 per game.
Collins threw for more than 200 yards only four times -- due in part to the Titans' heavy focus on the run -- and had 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
To give the passing game a boost, the Titans signed free-agent wide receiver Nate Washington to a six-year contract and drafted rookie Kenny Britt from Rutgers in the first round. Washington, who played for the Steelers last season, is recovering from an injured left hamstring and his chances of facing his former team are uncertain.
While its passing game might not be at full strength, opening the season in Pittsburgh will give Tennessee an immediate idea of how it stacks up against the champions.
"It's going to be as good a test as we can get for the opener, not just because they're the Super Bowl champs but have a great defense and a great offense," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "It's going to be as tough an environment to play in as we'll see all season."