Just four days after victory in a piercing October rainstorm, the Pittsburgh Steelers head down South for yet another downpour. Last week, the Steelers survived both the rain and the visiting Philadelphia Eagles with a field goal as time expired. But a trip to Nashville to play the Titans on a short week and a 40% chance of rain, as reported by NFLWeather.com, could really shake things up for an injury-plagued Pittsburgh.
On Thursday night against the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers defense will be short both Troy Polamalu (calf) and LaMarr Woodley (hamstring). To make matters worse, James Harrison has been limited in practice and is listed as probable with his nagging knee injury. Safety Ryan Mundy has done a decent job of filling in and a linebacker corps that includes Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote and Jason Worilds is still solid but how many more injuries can a defense take until it can no longer bend without breaking? If Harrison makes a bad cut on the slippery sod and that knee gives on him, then second year outside linebacker Chris Carter will have to fill void.
For Tennessee, not only is starting quarterback Jake Locker out with a shoulder injury, but running back Javon Ringer suffered an MCL injury sidelining him for at least four weeks. Former Seahawk Matt Hasselbeck will start in place of Locker for the second straight week and will have Kenny Britt to throw to who is listed as probable following his full participation in practice. Last week Britt didn’t practice at all and still saw 28 snaps on game day; however, he only made two grabs for 23 yards. Rookie Kendall Wright has emerged as the number one and leads the Titans in catches (27), targets (44) and first down receptions (14). Nate Washington (14 catches, 274 yards, 2 TDs) has proven to be a big-play option and an underutilized Jared Cook (19 catches, 237 yards, 2 TDs) is a massive target at tight end. Hasselbeck will have to spread the ball around in the rain to all of his options if he wants to improve an offense ranked dead last in time of possession.
For the Steelers, Rashard Mendenhall has returned to the backfield. If Mendenhall can keep that knee at 100%, the Steelers should once again be a multidimensional offense that doesn’t rely solely on Big Ben in and out of the pocket. But on a watered down field and being only his second start of the season, coach Mike Tomlin will likely cap Mendenhall’s carries around 20 and continue to let Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer split a handful of touches.
As much as the Steelers are typically known for the running game, Big Ben and his aerial attack have been stellar all season. And now that he is only 300 yards away from Terry Bradshaw’s all-time franchise passing record, there is a chance he could break it in Nashville on Thursday against a defense ranked 25th against the pass (279.6 ypg) and 29th overall. Still, weather will likely cause that record to fall the following week. Having thrown for over 1,100 yards this season, eight touchdowns and a completion percentage of 65.6%; Roethlisberger is heading in the direction of yet another Pro Bowl. Highly touted for his instinctual ability to improvise and scramble in any weather, much of his success this year has been in the pocket and limiting mistakes. Tight end Heath Miller has been incorporated more into the team’s passing game and in turn has four touchdowns and 170 yards on 19 catches. With so many weapons surrounding Big Ben, it will extremely difficult for the Tennessee D to limit Pittsburgh’s lengthy and clock consuming drives.
The Steelers are built for the playoffs while the Titans are rebuilding, but with a heavy rainfall it’s anybody’s ball game. The Steelers have lost their last three road games, but the team is 2-0 in their previous two rain games while allowing a total of 21 points. The Titans, however, are 0-2 and have been outscored 83-17 as reported by NFLWeather.com’s historical analytics. If the rain manages to be a significant factor and keeps the game close, Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham is a perfect 8-for-8 on the year and maybe a game ending field goal attempt could be in the works for the second straight week for the Steelers. After all, two rain games in a row on a short week can’t possibly be an advantage.
Will Strome Columnist, NFLWeather.com