Can Steelers' Defense Tighten On The Road?

Every week, it seems, the Steelers are celebrating an anniversary of sorts. Tonight, Mike Munchak will get up in front of the room and talk about ...

... the 30th anniversary of the Steelers' 3-4 defense.

Munchak, the coach of the 1-4 Tennessee Titans, will speak after the game, win or lose, about the defense of the 2-2 Steelers because that unit's distinct Jekyll & Hyde, home & away dichotomy will be the determining factor.

With a fourth of the season in the books, the primary question has to be: Can the Steelers stop anybody on the road?

That must be asked because of the way the Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders on the road this season.

In those two games (against teams with a combined 3-6 record), the Steelers allowed 65 points, 655 yards and a passer rating of 114.7.

In their two homes games (against teams with a combined 5-5 record), the Steelers allowed 24 points, 465 yards and a passer rating of 86.4.

Of course, on the road the Steelers played against a couple of veteran quarterbacks – Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer – who understand the specifics of a 3-4 defense, which the Steelers installed the same year Munchak entered the league out of Penn State.

"I came in the league back in '82 when maybe two teams were running a 3-4," said Munchak. "Pittsburgh is a team that stays with what they believe in and what's worked for them. They do a great job of drafting and acquiring players that fit their system and believe in and buy into what they're doing. They've been doing it for a long period of time."

But apparently veteran quarterbacks who don't have to dodge fierce pass rushes get the Steelers' scheme, and tonight along comes 14th-year veteran Matt Hasselbeck against a defense that will be missing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and strong safety Troy Polamalu.

Hasselbeck, 37, who lost to the Steelers in Super Bowl 40, is starting his second consecutive game for the Titans in place of injured Jake Locker, their No. 1 draft pick in 2011.

Hasselbeck had just signed a three-year, $21 million deal as a free agent with the Titans when they drafted Locker, and Hasselbeck finished the season with a capable 82.4 passer rating.

But Munchak made the move to Locker at the start of this season, and Locker responded with a 90.2 rating until injuring his non-throwing shoulder against the Houston Texans two Sundays ago.

Hasselbeck finished that game and started in last week's loss to Minnesota. His passer rating is 73.6, but his experience has to be a concern to the road-shy Steelers at this point.

"The young quarterback was doing fine but I'm not sure their veteran quarterback isn't better for any team, especially this guy with the experience he's got," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "You have to look at who they've played. They've played four great opponents. They've had a tough schedule and they've been close, tough games for the most part. A couple of them later in the game got opened up a little bit but like every team in the NFL, their football, if it's not winning, is always better than its record. This team definitely is better than that record."

The lone Titans win was an overtime thriller against the visiting Detroit Lions. And no one in Pittsburgh would be surprised by something similar to that 44-41 score, particularly if the Steelers can't stop Titans running back Chris Johnson.

The lightening-quick Johnson has watched his production and average-per-attempt decline each season since he rushed for 2,006 yards (5.6) in 2009. In 2010 he rushed for 1,364 yards (4.3) and last season he rushed for 1,047 yards (4.0).

This season, with 210 yards in five games, Johnson's on pace to finish with only 672 yards (2.9).

But the Titans feel he's still as fit and effective as ever.

"We've fallen behind and it's hard for us to get a chance to establish the running game because of that," said Munchak. "It's been a big factor in this. A lot of times you start and you're not running as well as you like early, the defense is a little stacked up, they're playing to your tendencies a little bit, having more to look at at the line of scrimmage, and in most games you can wear it down and get an opportunity in the second quarter, third quarter, and fourth quarter to start busting some runs open. We've done that in the past when our record was better. We're just not staying in games."

The Steelers understand that phenomenon, but feel they've fixed most of their problems in the run game because of their scary passing game, their growing cohesion of the offensive line, and the return of Rashard Mendenhall.

However, it's the losses of both Polamalu and Woodley that concern the Steelers tonight.

On the road.

Against a veteran quarterback.

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