Five Things to Watch: Titans at Steelers

The highly anticipated first game of the NFL season is tonight at 7:30 p.m. as the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers host the Titans at Heinz Field. Here are five things to watch as the 2009 NFL season kicks off with this opening matchup.

1. The Steeler offensive line.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger admitted that Pittsburgh became a Super Bowl contender last year when the offensive line gelled late in the season. What was supposed to be an Achilles heel for the Steelers actually turned out to be the thing that lifted them to a Super Bowl title. Now Pittsburgh has one of the more cohesive offensive lines in the league and while no one player stands out, the entire unit works well together and it’ll be interesting to see if they pick up tonight where they left off last February in Tampa.

2. How will the Titans fare without Albert Haynesworth?
Haynesworth was the key cog in Tennessee’s defense the past couple years while commanding double teams and freeing up those around him to make plays. In steps Tony Brown, a player coming off a great ’09 season and one that must fill the massive shoes left by Haynesworth. Brown is more than capable as an interior pass-rusher, but he probably won’t command double-teams like Haynesworth did. How will his linemates Jevon Kearse, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jason Jones fare now that they might not see one-on-one matchups like they did when Haynesworth was playing next to them?

3. Do the Titans still lack offensive playmakers?
Running back Chris Johnson burst on the scene last year as a rookie, averaging 4.9 yards a carry and totaling 10 touchdowns (9 on the ground, 1 through the air). But it was clear in Tennessee’s loss to Baltimore in the AFC Divisional Round that the Titans lacked offensive playmakers. So they signed former Steeler Nate Washington and drafted Kenny Britt in the first round to give their receiving corps a boost. Will it be enough? We won’t find out about Washington tonight as he continues to battle an injured hamstring, but Britt practiced with the starting offense all week and will get an opportunity to play. Although he lacks elite speed, Britt was a monster after the catch while playing at Rutgers and could give quarterback Kerry Collins a nice weapon tonight in the passing game.

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Daily Six-Pack: NFL Preseason Friday

NFL preseason action continues tonight with four games on the schedule. Below are six quick-hit thoughts and things to watch for during tonight’s slate of games.

1. Are the reports true about Palmer?
All indications from Bengals camp is that Carson Palmer is in the best shape of his career after missing virtually the entire 2008 season with a right elbow injury. Palmer is expected to get 12-15 snaps tonight when the Bengals travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints. Just as the Patriots were hoping for a strong showing from Tom Brady last night (he threw for 100 yards and 2 TDs, by the way), Cincinnati is hoping that Palmer flashes the arm strength that once made him the top overall pick. Another thing to keep an eye on is how the young Cincinnati offensive line looks in protecting Palmer. The Bengals have a physical unit in Andrew Whitworth, Anthony Collins, Kyle Cook, Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams, but they’re an inexperienced unit on a whole and Cincy would love to see some cohesion from the group tonight.

2. The starting quarterback battle for the Vikings begins tonight.
Head coach Brad Childress reported that Sage Rosenfels will get the start Friday night against the Colts, which isn’t a huge surprise considering Tarvaris Jackson missed some time in camp with a sprained knee. Still, Rosenfels getting the starting nod tonight may be an indication that he’s pulled ahead in the race for the Vikes’ starting quarterback job. Rosenfels doesn’t have a high ceiling in terms of potential, but he’s steady and could be a good game manager for a Minnesota team that is expected to keep the ball on the ground a lot with Adrian Peterson. While Jackson will certainly get his opportunity to start in preseason, a strong first impression tonight would go a long way for Rosenfels.

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Daily Six-Pack: NFL Preseason Thursday

Four games are on the Week 1 NFL preseason schedule tonight and there are some interesting headlines to follow. Below are six quick-hit thoughts on tonight’s action.

1. Brady returns to live action
The last time Tom Brady took a snap in a live NFL game, he tore both his MCL and ACL after suffering a season-ending hit in Week 1 of the 2008 season. Brady returns to action tonight and will start against the Eagles in Philadelphia. He probably won’t get more than a series or two, but if everything goes well, it’ll be yet another promising sign that Brady has recovered from the devastating knee injury that almost ruined his career.

2. Is Flacco in store for a major sophomore slump?
Reports out of Baltimore haven’t been promising for second-year quarterback Joe Flacco, who has struggled in the passing game thus far in training camp. He apparently has struggled reading defenses, is missing open receivers and has thrown a high number of interceptions. The Ravens would like to open the playbook more in Flacco’s second year, but if his struggles carry into the preseason, then the team might have to scale back his responsibilities and once again make him more of a game-manager like he was as a rookie.

3. How will the T.O.-less Cowboys look?
During the offseason, one of the main reasons the Cowboys cut toxic (but highly productive) receiver Terrell Owens was so that quarterback Tony Romo wouldn’t have any distractions entering the 2009 season. Dallas wants Romo to step up and be more of a leader both in the locker room and on the field and it would appear that the 29-year-old’s career is at a crossroads. One preseason game in Oakland isn’t going to answer whether or not Romo is ready to become the leader that Dallas wants him to be, but it’ll be interesting to see how well he gels with his receivers without T.O. commanding his attention. Apparently Romo and Roy Williams are finally starting to get their timing down.

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