Same Ol' Steelers Poised to Repeat

The Steelers and the Titans are nearly identical to the two teams that played for the No. 1 seed late last season. Will tonight's winner earn the same super spoils?

It's the dawn of a new day, a new season, but it's the same old Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans.

Those two teams kick off the NFL season tonight at Heinz Field in a rematch of the Steelers' last loss of 2008. They of course won the Super Bowl, but not after the Titans slapped them in the face, 31-14, in Nashville.

The Steelers return nearly the identically same team, but with a healthy punter and a "Joystick." That's the nickname of one Stefan Logan, the 5-foot-6 return specialist from Miami, who went through the University of South Dakota and the Canadian Football League to wow the Steelers this summer with eye-popping preseason averages of 21.2 yards per punt return and 37 yards per kickoff return.

The Steelers will be without No. 3 wide receiver Nate Washington, who signed with the Titans, but is questionable for the game with a hamstring injury. The Steelers will also be without their two mack inside linebackers from a year ago, but reserve Keyaron Fox is expected to play, and this summer he's played as well as the departed Larry Foote and perhaps even injured starter Lawrence Timmons.

Darnell Stapleton is also gone, but ably replaced by veteran Trai Essex at right guard.

A Steelers change that might not be so minor is the swapping of punt-coverage gunners Anthony Madison and Will Gay for the tandem of Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis. Are the rookies, childhood friends from New Orleans, up to the task?

"Mike's going to make them fair catch," Lewis said of his blazing fast best friend. "And if he misses the tackle, I'm there to clean it up. That's what I do."

The Steelers hope to clean up their memory banks as well. They came to Nashville last year after winning a physical game in Baltimore which not only clinched the AFC North Division title but gave the Steelers a first-round bye.

The Titans had lost to the Houston Texans the previous week and were clearly the more emotional team for a game that decided the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

The Titans played like it. Against a team that allowed only 121 rushing yards in three playoff games, the Titans rushed for 117 yards in beating the Steelers.

"They had something to prove," said Chris Hoke. "They had the best record, but everyone was talking about us. So they went out there with that fire and had something to prove. They had a great game, we laid an egg, and they ended up winning. There wasn't anything magical to it. We got beat, plain and simple."

Was there perhaps a letdown for the Steelers after beating the Ravens?

"Naturally, yeah, there would have to be some," said Aaron Smith. "But I know we were motivated going into that game, because we thought we'd wrap up homefield advantage. So we went in there wanting to win the game. They just got the better of us that day. They're a good football team and they made fewer mistakes than we made. Defensively we gave up big plays and really we hadn't done that all year.

"The thing that sticks in my head, though," Smith said, "is the way they ran the ball on us in the fourth quarter to close the game out."

The Titans still have those backs. Outside burner Chris Johnson and inside runner LenDale White expect to share the load. In fact, the Titans return with the same offensive lineup, except for Washington at wide receiver in place of Justin McCareins. If Washington doesn't play due to his injury, first-round pick Kenny Britt will.

Defensively, the Titans will have defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch healthy. He'll join the other 10 players who started last year's game, a game in which the Steelers outgained the Titans, had more time of possession, averaged more yards per play, and had a far better third-down conversion rate. The big difference was the 4-0 turnover margin that favored the Titans.

"But at the end of the day," said Casey Hampton, "it's about getting to the big game. We got to the big game."

And the trek back begins tonight.


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