Opener at hand

PITTSBURGH – The Tennessee Titans are 51-1 long shots to win the AFC this season because they're in a major rebuilding mode.

The Steelers are 18-1 long shots to win the Super Bowl this season because of the lingering soap operas that don't seem to be going away.

Whose problems are greater? That might be answered today in the 1 p.m. opener at Heinz Field, but it's no sure thing. Soap operas tend to linger, even grow, while rebuilding teams tend to become immune to pressure. Hines Ward said as much when asked about the Titans.

"Nobody expects them to do anything this year," he said. "That's what makes them a dangerous team."

The Titans have only nine starters back from their last game, two years ago, against the Steelers, but one of those players is quarterback Steve McNair, who's led the Titans to 10 wins over the Steelers in 13 games.

McNair started 12 of those 13 games, but the lone relief appearance is the game that sticks in the minds of Steelers veterans.

"That's the game I remember best, the game he was supposed to have been hurt," said cornerback Deshea Townsend.

McNair was on the bench with a bruised sternum on Nov. 5, 2000. The Steelers led the Titans, 20-16, but replacement quarterback Neil O'Donnell was hurt on a sack by Jason Gildon. McNair entered the game on third-and-11 at the Titans' 36 with 2:35 remaining. Four plays later, the Titans were in the end zone with the winning touchdown.

McNair has been the central figure in the Titans' domination of the Steelers, but he's now surrounded by a very young cast with a new offensive coordinator.

"You have to be careful in terms of what you see on video," said Steelers secondary coach Darren Perry. "This is not like a Baltimore or Cincinnati that's had the same offensive coordinator for a couple years. You have to be careful about what you study because you know they're going to show you some different looks when the season starts.

"We don't know much about Norm Chow at this level; we know what he's done in college. We just have to be careful about what we hone in on because they could give us who knows what."

Chow is the Titans' new offensive coordinator. He was the brains behind the USC offense that's won back-to-back national titles.

Of the nine Tennessee starters who played at Heinz Field two years ago, four are blockers. A fifth, left tackle Brad Hopkins, will miss the game to serve a one-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. So rookie right tackle Michael Roos will play left tackle and center Justin Hartwig is expected to move to right tackle.

The other familiar face on offense is wide receiver Drew Bennett. He'll line up opposite either Troy Edwards, the former Steelers No. 1 draft pick who was just picked up off the waiver wire, or Tyrone Calico, who's struggling to recover from last year's knee injury.

At running back, the Titans have replaced Eddie George with Chris Brown and Travis Henry, who's also struggling with a toe injury.

On defense, the Titans only have three holdovers from 2003: OLBs Peter Sirmon and Keith Bulluck and SS Tank Williams. The new cornerbacks are Andre Woolfolk, Tony Beckham and rookie Pacman Jones and the free safety is Lamont Thompson.

The defensive line that led the Titans' top-ranked run defense in 2003 has been rebuilt. It's led now by tackle Albert Haynesworth. The top pass-rushers are Bo Schobel and Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Rob Bironas, who was cut by the Steelers last year, is the Titans' kicker.

Some of the key players remain, and the rest are young and hungry. Are the Steelers still hungry? Is the quarterback working as hard as he should be? Has Plaxico Burress been adequately replaced? Is Willie Parker the answer at running back? Has the defense, which allowed an average of 24 points per its final five games, been figured out? Is there someone, a true leader, around to keep everyone focused and hungry?

Kick it off and let's find out.

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