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Pregame stretch: Titans at Steelers

September 6, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Tennessee Titans (0-0) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0)

Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

Announcers: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts

Annoyance factor: Virtually none! If the Steelers do, in fact, have a subpar season in 2013 as everyone and their brother is now forecasting (although we were first), one of the small benefits of that is more of this team on the broadcasts. Eagle is smart, smooth and very rarely misses a call, while Fouts is smart, opinionated and adjusts his analysis to what is actually happening rather than coming in with a script and sticking to it regardless of how the game plays out.

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Weather – or not?: Partly cloudy, high 70s. As usual, this will be the last time you see green grass at Heinz Field, courtesy of Mother Nature and not a can of spray paint.

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Referee: Jerome Boger

Competence factor: Normally, it’d be great news to have the white hat from last year’s Super Bowl on the game, but Boger’s case, of course, is an exception. Boger’s presence in the big game last February seemed to go against the common sense of casual viewers and the professional observations of many in the refereeing community. To our eyes, both Boger and his crew have a history of failing to properly administrate penalties and/or explain what they’re administrating.

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The line: Pittsburgh -7

Smarts say: Oddsmakers are as clueless the first week of an NFL season as the rest of us and often resort to assessing traditional roles in setting Week 1 lines. That’s how a bad-looking Steelers team ends up favored by seven over a bad-looking Titans team. The over-under of 42 puts this in the neighborhood of 24-17 Steelers

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Key matchup: Steelers outside linebackers vs. Titans offensive line/Jake Locker

Because: Jake Locker completed 67 percent of his passes in the preseason (compared to 56 percent in last year’s regular season). Jake Locker can win in the NFL completing 67 percent of his passes. The Steelers can’t let Jake Locker complete 67 percent of his passes. And that means the long-missing pressure from the edges has to return in 2013 in the form of a (hopefully) healthy LaMarr Woodley, a desperate-to-keep-his-job Jason Worilds and potentially game-changing rookie Jarvis Jones. It’s been well documented that when Woodley gets a sack, the Steelers win and when he gets 10 in a season, they win a lot. To be fair, Worilds has not been a total washout, just not the kind of player you expect to get in the second round, especially one taken before Sean Lee. And Jones, of course, has shown flashes of potential superstardom and an uncanny nose for the football in limited preseason play.

Quick hits:

+ The most significant NFL story of the year already has occurred with the news last week that the league was settling a potentially financially crippling concussion-related lawsuit filed by a group of former players for the paltry total sum of about $950 million. Personally, we thought a $10 billion verdict (about one-third of the league’s worth) might have been possible if the case had gone to trial. To settle for less than $1 billion is a huge “win” for the league and ensures the medium-term (15-25 year) financial viability of pro fooball.

+ If you tell me the Steelers released Jon Dwyer because he wasn’t productive enough and fumbled too much, I’d say you’re being totally disingenuous. The facts show the exact opposite of that. But if you tell me he was released because he’s a surly, chronically late morale killer who Felix Jones made expendable, well, that’s different. Only the guys on the inside know if that second description is true, but that’s what’s been rumored since Dwyer’s departure.

+ Like everything else involving the NFL, the hand-wringing over a team’s final cuts (Who will nail down that 8th offensive line spot? I must know!) seems overblown. However, when the Steelers went out in the week before the first regular season game and sought out two players specifically to play special teams (linebacker Terence Gavin and DB Antwon Blake, who was Jacksonville’s leading special teams tackler last season), that’s an indication of some serious trouble.

+ Speaking of special teams and serious trouble, the Steelers pulled the rare feat of upgrading at punter late in the preseason when they signed veteran Zoltan Mesko after the Patriots unloaded his $1.3 million salary. Because Mesko cleared waivers, Pittsburgh was able to negotiate a lower-cost deal with him and, more importantly, improve dramatically over Drew Butler, who won the job in Pittsburgh almost by default after Brian Moorman flamed out in the preseason.

The pick: For as down as we’ve been on the Steelers for the past 15 months (and it’s only been trendy to be down on them for the last 15 days), we have a hard time seeing them losing this game. The holes the Titans have at offensive line and defensive back seem like a lot to overcome matchup-wise and we don’t think Tennessee has the kind of pass rusher who can expose Pittsburgh’s still shaky O line. If Mssrs. Woodley, Jones and Worilds can’t make their presence felt, it could get sketchy, but we’re going…Steelers 27-17.

Last year: We were an otherworldly 11-5 against the spread last year, but don’t expect that again from us.

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