Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans: Ground battle crucial

The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) travel to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans (1-4) in what promises to be a hard-hitting affair.

Although these two teams hold a combined record of 3-6 entering this game, the Steelers know this is an opportunity to get back on track and will bring playoff-like intensity. While the buzz from the home crowd should keep the Titans motivated early, Tennessee will need to be at its best to pull off a mild surprise on NFL Network's Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET).

Let's take a look at a few key questions heading into the game:

Which Chris Johnson will show up this week?

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Thursday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m. ET
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In Tennessee, the dramatic decline of Johnson has dominated headlines. The former Pro Bowler has only mustered five 100-yard performances in his last 21 games after topping the century yard mark in 24 of his first 46 career starts. To make matters worse, Johnson has been held to fewer than 25 yards in four of five games this season, averaging a paltry 2.9 yards per carry overall.

Against a rough and tumble Steelers defense, Johnson must find a way to squirt through narrow seams to keep the Titans from falling behind schedule. If he can find some room to run and display some of the explosiveness that made him one of the most feared runners in the NFL from 2008 to 2010, the Titans can avoid the long-yardage situations that result in frequent blitzing from Dick LeBeau's troops.

Will Rashard Mendenhall resurrect Pittsburgh's sagging running game?

The Steelers would like to pummel opponents with a physical running attack, but the results have been disappointing through five games. The unit ranks 26th in rushing yards, and has failed to produce a run of 20-plus yards in 93 attempts. Those dismal numbers should change, though, with Rashard Mendenhall fully back in the fold.

The fifth-year pro has bounced back quickly from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 17 of last season. In his first game back last Sunday, Mendenhall rushed 13 times for 68 yards, and took a swing pass 13 yards to paydirt. Most importantly, he displayed the speed, quickness and burst to explode through holes and remains a powerful finisher at the end of runs. With coordinator Todd Haley intent on achieving offensive balance, Mendenhall will get enough touches throughout to make a significant impact as a playmaker on the ground. If he can surpass the 90-yard mark on 20 to 22 carries, Mendenhall will enable the Steelers to control the clock and set up big-play opportunities in the passing game off play action.

How will the Titans defend Ben Roethlisberger?

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Roethlisberger doesn't get the attention of other elite quarterbacks, but there is little doubt he is one of the best in the business at generating big plays in the passing game. Most of those plays are the result of Roethlisberger extending plays from the pocket with his superior strength and athleticism. He frequently shakes free from first contact before tossing accurate strikes to receivers at every level.

Given Roethlisberger's sensational improvisational skills, the Titans would be wise to mix in some blitz pressures with traditional zone coverage to keep him off balance in the pocket. In addition, they must jam and harass the receivers on the perimeter to alter the timing of the passing game. If Tennessee is able to accomplish either objective, they can disrupt Roethlisberger's rhythm and force him into a disappointing night as a passer.

Can Matt Hasselbeck crack the Steelers' defensive code?

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The Steelers' zone blitz scheme creates confusion for veteran quarterbacks by incorporating constant pre-snap movement. Linebacker bluffing leads to mistakes in pass protection, while constant disguising from the secondary leads to poor reads and turnovers.

Jake Locker remains on the shelf with a shoulder injury. That's the bad news for Tennessee. The good news? Hasselbeck enters the game with a wealth of experience as a 13-year veteran. His vast knowledge of defensive fronts and coverages should allow him to anticipate the Steelers' intentions, resulting in big-play opportunities for the Titans. If he can defeat Pittsburgh with savvy and consistently get the Titans into the correct play call, Tennessee should be able to exploit the vulnerable areas of the defense and manufacture points from the passing game.

Conclusion

The Titans have struggled offensively over the past few weeks and face a daunting task in attempting to move the football against a physical Steelers defense. Even though Pittsburgh will be without Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley, the Titans will have problems keeping James Harrison and Co. off Hasselbeck in the pocket, resulting in a few game-changing turnovers. With Mendenhall back in the lineup to help the Steelers cash in on those opportunities, I give the nod to the Steelers in this matchup.

Steelers 31, Titans 17

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.