"Yep. We want to prove everybody wrong," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. "They've got us ranked in the division as the fourth O-line, and that upsets us."
Today just might be the perfect day for the Steelers' offensive line to "prove everybody wrong."
The Steelers host the Tennessee Titans, who fixed their own offensive line in the off-season, got their receivers healthy, and improved a bit at quarterback. But the $100 million that Titans owner Bud Adams shelled out in the off-season did little to help a defense that allowed a franchise-record 471 points and a league-worst 29.4 points per game last season.
This preseason, the Titans allowed 5.4 yards per carry and tied for 30th in per-game run defense. While they may have an abundance of 4-3 pass-rushers, players such as Zach Brown, Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan are front-seven softies against the run. Even defensive tackles Sammie Hill and Turrell Casey are penetrators who can be gouged in the run game.
It's a defense against which a beleaguered group of pass-blockers can prove doubters wrong.
"It is," said Steelers guard Ramon Foster. "And there are a lot of eyes on us. We have to show up. That's just point-blank period. Ben (Roethlisberger) says it, and it's true: This offense will go as far as we allow it to.
"We've got to be really good. We've got to come out hot this game, every game. It can't be, 'Oh in the second half we'll pick it up.' We have to be absolutely hot. With the attention that we've gotten this year, let's show improvement."
The Titans are far more formidable on offense -- that's if Jake Locker shows up. The Titans are 3-0 in games in which Locker has a passer rating of 90-plus, but he's 4-7 overall and hasn't guided the Titans to a win over a team that's .500 or better. But Locker has the offensive line, the running game and the receivers to post quality stats.
The Titans spent $47 million on free-agent guard Andy Levitre, and also brought in free-agent center Rob Turner from the Rams. They also drafted Alabama's man-child, Chance Warmack, in the first round to play right guard. Tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart are veteran holdovers.
"They are good. That's the scary part," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "If you look at some of the holes they opened up in the preseason, those are holes you can't give Chris Johnson. I've been playing the middle of the field for 12 years. You DON'T give the middle of the field to Chris Johnson and get him on the ground. They opened up holes like that all preseason. When (reserve RB) Shonn Green got in it was the same thing. So we've got to stop the run."
That's forever the Steelers' credo under coordinator Dick LeBeau, and the Steelers have defensed the lightning-quick Johnson well. In five games, Johnson been held under 100 yards each time with an average of 3.8 per carry. Johnson averages 4.8 per carry against the rest of the league.
The key has been the Steelers' extraordinary focus on being gap sound. LaMarr Woodley exemplified this singleness of purpose with the following answer:
"Our responsibility is that whatever the play is called that we're doing what we're supposed to do, not anybody else's job. If I'm supposed to be on the No. 2 receiver, stay on the No. 2 receiver and not look up and try to get on the No. 3. If I'm supposed to be in the C gap, that doesn't mean being in the B gap trying to make a play and trying to do more than I'm supposed to do."
That answer was in reply to a question about Locker's passing skills.
"Nate is the guy," said Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. "Nate Washington is the guy over there. Regardless of all the first or second-rounders y'all want to talk about (that) the Tennessee Titans drafted, Nate is the guy."
Clark agreed. "Kenny Britt is good," Clark said. "But what Nate gives them is more versatility. He's faster. I think Kenny was ascending to be the guy right before he hurt his knee against Denver a few years back. And he's been kind of set back by those knee problems. He can't get in and out of breaks the way Nate can. And Nate's just been such a consistent producer for them. It's not an All-Pro level but as far as the Tennessee Titans go he's the guy you've got to stop. On third down he's Locker's go-to guy, working the middle, finding holes in the zone. He's really become a complete receiver."
Clark would know. So would most of his Steelers teammates, because they've played the Titans each of the last five years. But when these two former division rivals have gotten together recently, it's been about the running game. Only once (Pittsburgh in 2009) in the five meetings has the winning team been out-rushed. This Steelers offensive line understands it all very well.
"We've just got to do a good job of staying composed and going out there and doing what we're good at," said captain Pouncey, "and not having penalties and setting us back, and keeping Ben upright, and I think we'll be pretty fine out there. "Honestly, we've deserved the criticism this preseason, but I think we've been doing a lot of good things. I think people are overlooking all the good things that we've done this preseason, and the whole off-season. But there's no more point in talking about it. We've just got to go out there and prove it."