Steelers-Titans: A Class Reunion

Mike Munchak knows the Titans and Ken Whisenhunt knows Ben Roethlisberger. The resolution occurs Monday night.

Mike Munchak was a Titan for so long he was once an Oiler.

For 32 years, Munchak was an integral part of the Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Titans, and now he's returning to LP Field in Nashville for Monday night's game as the Steelers' offensive line coach.

That's if someone gets him to the right locker room.

"It will be different," he said. "I got there and the stadium wasn’t even built. It was being built at that time and I watched how that city and that team came together."

After a Hall of Fame playing career, Munchak coached for 19 seasons, the last three as head coach. The pinnacle was his first season, when the Tennessee Titans went 9-7. Since then they've gone 6-10, 7-9 and are now 2-7.

But, he says, "I try to remind these guys that we were 2-1 against Pittsburgh."

Not that the 6-4 Pittsburgh Steelers need any more motivation coming off a loss to the lowly New York Jets.

The Steelers are 6-4 and battling for both first place in the AFC North and a playoff berth in the AFC. The loss to the Jets ended an upswing in which the Steelers won three in a row with the help of an offensive line that's maturing under Munchak.

Monday night will mark the eighth start of the season by the same group of Steelers linemen, the most since one group started 12 games in 2009.

Those starters in 2009 have all been replaced by a group that's keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright. He's enjoying a career-low 6.2 percent sack rate, and in his last four games that number is 4.5 percent.

That protection and a running game that's averaging 4.1 yards per carry -- the team's best average since 2011 -- have allowed Roethlisberger to perform like an MVP candidate with a career-best passer rating of 107.3.

Roethlisberger, too, is ready for a reunion of sorts Monday night when he plays against his first offensive coordinator, Titans Coach Ken Whisenhunt.

"Yes, and Ray Horton," Roethlisberger said of the Titans defensive coordinator. "It’s special because I know Coach Whiz and I have a pretty good relationship now. We text and keep in contact throughout the seasons. It will be special to go against him again."

Roethlisberger, of course, went against Whisenhunt in Super Bowl 43 when Whisenhunt was the losing coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Roethlisberger and Whisenhunt were on the same side when the Steelers won Super Bowl 40.

The quarterback has always maintained that he and Whisenhunt have remained friendly and in contact over the years, but said, "We butted heads, as lots of people do, but I don’t think it was any issue. B.A. (Bruce Arians) and I butted heads, too, and you would have thought we were too close."

Why did Roethlisberger and Whisenhunt butt heads?

"Things where he would (do) something that I’m sure every coordinator and quarterback do. They go through the plays, and if I say I don’t like a play usually coordinators take it out," Roethlisberger said. "He would kind of try to convince me that it was a good play, and he probably knew better because I was a young guy and didn’t know much about the NFL at the time. But, if you want to call that butting heads I guess that’s what you would call it; just as simple as me maybe not being comfortable with a play that he wanted to call."

"He was new at what he was doing in the NFL and I was new at what I was doing," said Whisenhunt. "I’d say that’s probably pretty natural for the situation. But I tell you what, he always worked hard and did a great job. I was very lucky to have an opportunity to work with Ben. I admire the fact that he’s been such a good player for so long now. I’m not excited about facing him because of the way he’s playing right now, but I certainly have a great deal of respect for the pro that he’s become."

Whisenhunt is developing a rookie quarterback with some similarities to Roethlisberger in Zach Mettenberger, a 6-5, 224-pounder who was the team's sixth-round draft pick.

A two-year starter at LSU, Mettenberger has started the last two games for the Titans -- losses to the Texans and Ravens -- and has a passer rating of 78.3.

"I think maybe there are some similarities there," Whisenhunt said. "I haven’t spent enough time with Zach, but I know one of the things that impressed me very early with Ben, and I remember talking with Coach (Dick) LeBeau about it on the field, was some of the throws he made in practice. I would say that it is fair to say that some of the throws that Zach has made in practice were the kind of things that got your attention."

Mettenberger has a strong arm, but not near the mobility Roethlisberger had, or even currently has in his 11th pro season. Against the Ravens, Mettenberger was sacked five times, and few doubt that Dick LeBeau will confuse Mettenberger with his blitzes.

With LeBeau as defensive coordinator in 1995-96 and 2004-present, the Steelers 20-2 against rookie quarterbacks.

"I’ve had really good players when we’ve played those rookie quarterbacks," LeBeau said with a laugh. "So we won more than we lost. That’s the reason my record is good: I had good players."

Mettenberger heads the league's 31st-ranked offense but will be working behind a high-pedigreed offensive line with a talented rookie runner in Bishop Sankey (3.9 ypc.) and dangerous receivers in Kendall Wright (39-403-4), Justin Hunter (21-368-2) and Nate Washington (19-267-0).

Tight end Delanie Walker leads the Titans with 512 receiving yards but is questionable with a concussion.

Defensively, the Titans rank 22nd in yardage allowed, 29th in run defense. The key Titans defenders are tackle Jurrell Casey (4 sacks) and safety Michael Griffin (3 sacks, 2 interceptions), who leads the team with 63 tackles.

"Usually you don’t have a personal knowledge of them, especially the defensive side of the ball," said Munchak. "For myself, with Michael Griffin and (Jurrell) Casey and those guys, it’s interesting watching them and seeing how they’re playing after spending so much time with them.

"Things change dramatically when you change coaching staffs and you bring in new coordinators. They are playing defense very similar to the way the Steelers play because of the guys that they’ve hired. Offensively, it's different also. It’s different but it’s still the same players. I know them (and) I know how they play. It’s interesting watching them, and you find yourself rooting for them a little bit. Except for this weekend."


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