|Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck faced heavy pressure in last season's 38-17 loss to the Steelers. The Titans will need to protect Hasselbeck in Thursday's matchup. (US Presswire)|
Few organizations are as familiar with Dick LeBeau and the complexities of his fire zone blitzing scheme as the Tennessee Titans.
In LeBeau’s first stint as defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals (1984-1991), the battles with the Houston Oilers were hard-fought and contentious. In coach Mike Munchak’s playing career, his Oilers’ teams were 9-8 in 17 games against the Bengals during the span. The Oilers’ vaunted run-and-shoot offense scored at least 30 points six times and 40 or more on three occasions.
LeBeau, though, confounded the Oilers when it mattered most. In a 1990 AFC Wild Card Game, the Bengals prevailed 41-14 -- in the only playoff meeting between the former AFC Central rivals.
In 2003, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and LeBeau served on the Bills’ staff together when Buffalo ranked second in the NFL in total defense. Two seasons later, QB Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawks dropped a controversial 21-10 loss to LeBeau and the Steelers in Super Bowl XL. Despite the defeat, Hasselbeck threw for 273 yards and set a playoff career-high with 49 attempts.
On Thursday night, the Titans will face LeBeau and the Steelers again in a nationally televised game at LP Field. Last season, the Steelers sacked Hasselbeck three times in their 38-17 win.
“They’re very disciplined in how they do things,” Munchak said. “They’re coached well. They’re a smart group, very rarely do they expose a gap to where you make a big play. You have to earn what you get against them.”
But through four games the Steelers only have eight sacks and are ranked 17th in the league in sacks per pass attempt. It’s a statistic Munchak said poorly reflects the amount of pressure that Pittsburgh has created. A better measure, Munchak said, is quarterback hits -- of which the Steelers have 17.
“People get caught up in sack numbers. I don’t,” Munchak said. “I never have maybe because I’m a (former) offensive lineman.”
“It’s more about how many times did I scare the quarterback? How many times did the quarterback throw the ball away? People don’t look at those things, and I think they need to.”
In Sunday’s 16-14 win over Philadelphia, the Steelers forced two Michael Vick fumbles and sacked him three times. LeBeau created mismatches on the outside by employing an overload blitz. On several occasions, Vick struggled to slide his protection to account for an unblocked pass rusher.
“It’s not easy,” said Hasselbeck on the challenges of diagnosing the Steelers’ blitz packages. “Even if you get the protection right, which we feel like we can, it’s all about matchups. Just because you get a hat on a hat doesn’t mean that you’re going to block them. They’re talented.”
With Steelers LB James Harrison sidelined in last October’s meeting in Pittsburgh, his teammate LaMarr Woodley had one of his most productive games of the 2011 season. Woodley had 1.5 sacks and a critical interception in the third quarter. The Steelers’ LB capitalized on a one-on-one matchup with former Titans FB Ahmard Hall on his first-quarter sack of Hasselbeck. Woodley pushed Hall back several yards on a bull rush before wrapping up Hasselbeck. Despite having his facemask held by former Titans’ OG Jake Scott on a rush in the second quarter, Woodley still got to Hasselbeck on a combined sack with Ziggy Hood.
Woodley (hamstring) hasn’t practiced this week, and Harrison has been limited by a knee injury.
Explaining option routes: Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer’s scheme is replete with option routes where a receiver will adjust his pattern on the fly depending on the coverage and defensive alignment presented.
If a quarterback and receiver aren’t on the same page, turnovers can add up. It happened on a second-quarter interception by Vikings DB Antoine Winfield in Sunday’s loss. Hasselbeck anticipated that WR Nate Washington would be breaking inside out of the slot, but Washington broke outside after reading the coverage.
“It’s like a 50-50 call,” Hasselbeck said. “How do you see it? How do I see it? Even on the film, it’s an agree to disagree situation. Those are going to happen unfortunately, you just try to minimize them and get to know each other a little better.”
Washington said it’s a work in progress to grasp the new wrinkles in the offense.
“We haven’t been able to get the matchups that we have wanted thus far,” Washington said. “We’ll get it straight and we’ll be alright.”
Hasselbeck has thrown three touchdowns and three interceptions since replacing injured starter Jake Locker in Week 4.
“There are very, very correctable turnovers that we’ve had. Those are things that cannot happen,” Hasselbeck said. “Some of the others may or may not happen, but there are some that are very correctable. I think that’s where most of our focus is.”
Injury update: LB Colin McCarthy (ankle) missed Tuesday’s practice but is expected to play Thursday night. Munchak wanted to give McCarthy as much rest as possible as the Titans’ starting middle linebacker continues to recover from a high-right ankle sprain. OT Michael Otto (knee) also missed practice.
WR Kenny Britt (ankle), CBs Alterraun Verner (thigh) and Ryan Mouton (knee), S Jordan Babineaux (knee) and LB Patrick Bailey (hand) were full participants in practice. DE Scott Solomon was limited with a hamstring injury.
For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Tennessee Titans, follow Matt Rybaltowski @CBSTitans.