At 13-3, the Tennessee Titans had the best record in the NFL last season and the Steelers won the Super Bowl, making Thursday night's Kickoff game between those two teams very interesting.
But the fact that the Titans beat the Steelers in Week 16 last year, 31-14, without Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch makes the game even more compelling.
In fact, it was Tennessee's victory over Pittsburgh and the five sacks generated by the backup defensive line that probably was the deciding factor on the future of Haynesworth as a Titan.
First-year DT Jason Jones came off the bench and got 3.5 sacks on Ben Roethlisberger and first-year teammate William Hayes added a sack of his own.
The Steelers need to better protect Roethlisberger, who was sacked 46 times in the 2008 regular season. Not only was he sacked five times by Tennessee in that December game, he was hit another four times, lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions.
Six (days) from Sunday:
1. Protecting the Franchise: Since throwing for 380 yards in a 31-28 win over Philadelphia in Week 12 of the 2007 season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown just 348 passes in regular-, post- and pre-season games. The five sacks Brady suffered in the Super Bowl two years ago was only part of the pass-protection issues in New England. Since Brady did not play in the 2008 preseason and left for the year after just 11 pass attempts in the regular season, it remains to be seen if the Patriots' pass protection has improved. I expect teams to go after Brady this season, and in turn, I expect the Patriots, who signed veteran guard Kendall Simmons on Sunday, to be in more six- and seven-man protections along with more quick-pass game principles. The chess match continues.
2. In the line of fire: I really wonder if anything can be gained from firing coordinators a week before the regular-season opener. It sends the wrong message to players about the guy in front of the room trying to install the offense. What does the next coordinator do when he's installing his offense and calling plays? As one former head coach said to me this week, "You can always remove a coordinator's play-calling duties if he fails in games, but to fire him before real games are even played is absurd and will cause more problems than it solves." I agree. I remember when Bill Parcells restructured the play-calling duties on his staff in-season and I recall when Jim Fassel did the same thing. I also know of a Super Bowl head coach who quietly changed the chain of command during the season to preserve the integrity of the organization. And no one ever knew he did it.
3. Tough acts to follow: We were all impressed with the great job Atlanta's Mike Smith, Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Miami's Tony Sparano did last year in their first chance to be the man in charge. This year, six teams turn the controls over to rookie head coaches, but there's no guarantee any of those situations will turn out like the aforementioned ones. Rex Ryan has captured the emotions and hearts of his Jets team, which should play hard for him. Steve Spagnuolo got 12 forced turnovers from his Rams team in the preseason, but that looks like a two-year rebuilding project. Jim Schwartz in Detroit has more work to do than even he expected. Raheem Morris in Tampa and Todd Haley in Kansas City have already fired their coordinators. And Josh McDaniels in Denver has turned that team upside down. I think this is going to be a much tougher year for the new coaches, and a few months from now a number of teams will be crying for all those Super Bowl-winning coaches, like Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher, who are out of football right now. It might have been trendy to go young and inexperienced after Mike Tomlin won a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh, but expect the proven veteran coaches to make a comeback in 2010.
4. NFL all a-Twitter: The Twitter issue is going to be one all season. One team president told me he expects problems with players and Twitter accounts. He added that he'll be very interested to see how the league office enforces the 90-minute before and after policy. A team GM thought the pre-game management might work but wasn't as optimistic about the post-game situation. "We lose at home and guys want to fly out of the locker room in 30 minutes," the GM said. "We expect them to not tweet for another hour on issues surrounding the game?"
5. A rookie mistake? The Giants didn't play very well in their pass offense after Plaxico Burress shot himself last year. The team didn't address its receiving issues in free agency but did use the draft in an attempt to replace Burress. Some observers thought it was a tactical error not to go get a veteran receiver. I think the Giants got it right. Rookies Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden and returning veterans are going to put the Giants' passing game back in a very solid position. There might be some bumps in the road early but after watching Nicks practice I am encouraged by the Giants' plan for the passing game. Ultimately, however, time will tell.
6. The 33rd team: Take a look at all the cuts that took place this past week and the players that never went to camp and don't tell me a team led by Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Derrick Brooks, Matt Jones and others couldn't line up right now and beat an NFL team. Want players who are hungry, with a chip on their shoulder? They're on the street waiting for a call.