The Titans were Steelers-like in the way they manhandled Pittsburgh up front, hurried Ben Roethlisberger(notes) into mistakes, and were more physical. Tennessee’s 31-14 victory on Dec. 21 was Pittsburgh’s only loss in its final 10 games, and it made fans of both teams eager for the rematch.
It never took place—until now.
The Titans and Steelers, teams that always stay in character amid the constant changes that swirl around them in the NFL, open the new season Thursday night by playing the game that was anticipated in January.
The Steelers cooperated—they won the Super Bowl—but the Titans were derailed by Baltimore in the divisional round, and the Ravens then lost to Pittsburgh. The Titans started 10-0, finished 13-3 and have spent the last seven-plus months pondering how their season—and perhaps the Super Bowl—got away from them.
To the Steelers, the most indelible image of that Titans rout was running back LenDale White(notes) and several teammates tromping on Terrible Towels. The sideline stomp has been replayed countless times in Pittsburgh, where the towel is as much a source of civic pride as it is a symbol of the six-time Super Bowl-winning team it represents.
In Pittsburgh, one doesn’t dare tread on the Terrible Towel, but White said he would gladly do it again if he gets the chance.
“If it happens to be there, I’m going to stomp all over that, man,” White said. “If there’s a towel in the stands, I will stomp on it. I don’t care who gets mad. … If they throw a towel at me, I’m going to kick it and stomp all over it. If they don’t want their towel stomped on, keep it out of my face.”
White’s words weren’t especially well-received in his own locker room—why agitate the champions, after all? Coach Jeff Fisher quickly moved to end such talk.
“It was something that took place in an emotional moment,” Fisher said. “The players now understand … the tradition behind the towel and the organization. They’re certainly not going to carry their own towels out there and stomp on them before kickoff.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he’s got more important matters to worry about, such as making sure his players don’t turn over the ball four times again.
“There’s a lot of things that pump fans up that got nothing to do with playing and winning and losing,” Tomlin said. “This is going to be two top-quality teams. They’re going to play because it’s opening night … both teams need to get off to a great start. Those are going to be the things that motivate these teams.”
Obviously, he’s not expecting a Towel Tromp II.
Given the NFL’s yearly player turnover rate, this is about as close as two teams can come to a rematch from one season to the next. The Titans are missing only two starters, though the loss of All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) could significantly weaken what was the NFL’s No. 7 defense.
“It’s important for us to get off to a good start,” said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes), whose production was hurt by a groin injury. “There’s no better way than to play against the team that had the best finish last season.”
The Steelers return 19 of 22 starters, exceptional for a Super Bowl-winning team. Tomlin, however, has repeatedly taken steps to distance this team from last season’s.
The Steelers lost backup wide receiver Nate Washington(notes) to Tennessee, where he is expected to take on a bigger role once he heals from a hamstring injury that might keep him out of the opener. The Steelers will be without linebacker Lawrence Timmons(notes) (high ankle sprain).
The Titans have won four of their last five against the Steelers, but the loss also came in a season opener, 34-7 in 2005 as Willie Parker(notes) ran for 161 yards in his NFL starting debut. This time, Parker is unsigned past this season and is coming off an injury-interrupted year that helped limit him to 791 yards.
Both teams had kick return issues during the preseason, though the Steelers have settled on CFL import Stefan Logan(notes) as their punt returner. Fisher won’t announce his returner until game time, but it is likely to be cornerback Cortland Finnegan(notes).