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(AP) — Following their 8-8 finish last season, Ben Roethlisberger figures to have his work cut out for him as he attempts to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers back to the playoffs.
Without a go-to workhorse in the backfield and possibly two of his top receivers from 2012, Roethlisberger will try to help the Steelers win their 11th straight home opener Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
While Pittsburgh started last season with a promising 6-3 record, things began to fall apart when Roethlisberger went down with a sprained shoulder and rib injury in Week 10. The Steelers couldn’t recover, dropping five of seven down the stretch to miss the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Roethlisberger completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 2,287 yards and 17 touchdowns with only four interceptions before suffering the injury. One of those contests came in Tennessee on Oct. 11, when he went 24 of 40 for 363 yards with one TD and one pick in a 26-23 loss.
Roethlisberger, however, wasn’t quite as effective after sitting out three games, completing 56.4 percent for 978 yards and nine scores with four INTs over the last four contests.
Pittsburgh’s all-time leading passer now will try to stay healthy and help the franchise avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since a three-year drought from 1998-2000.
“I like our preparation,” coach Mike Tomlin told the team’s official website. “We are focused on what is going to be required for us to do to win this weekend. We’re going to take a business-like approach to it like we did in the preseason.”
Roethlisberger will have less to work with, though, following the departure of deep threat Mike Wallace to Miami and a knee injury to leading receiver Heath Miller that has him questionable for the opener.
Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, who combined for 110 catches, 1,413 yards and six touchdowns last season, will be Roethlisberger’s top targets until Miller’s return, while rookie Markus Wheaton also figures to see time.
They’ll face a Tennessee defense that hopes to be much improved after bringing in former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. After serving a suspension last season for his part in the Saints’ bounty scandal, Williams has been assigned to fix a unit that allowed a league-worst 29.4 points per game in 2012.
The Titans, who look to end a four-year playoff drought after going 6-10 last season, also made improvements to the offensive line by adding guard Andy Levitre, center Rob Turner and first-round draft pick Chance Warmack in an effort to help Jake Locker put together a breakout third season.
Locker, who missed five games – including the win over Pittsburgh – because of a separated left shoulder, completed 56.4 percent of his passes for 2,176 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He struggled late in the season, averaging 147.0 passing yards while posting a QB rating of 65.6 over his last three games.
The Titans, however, should have a deeper receiver corps for Locker to work with after bringing in Kevin Walter from Houston and drafting Justin Hunter in the second round. Kendall Wright led the team with 64 catches as a rookie in 2012 and deep threat Kenny Britt is expected to make more of an impact as he recovers from knee surgery.
“We want to take it to the next level,” Britt said. “We don’t want to be one of them mediocre teams out there not making the playoffs every year.”
A big season from running back Chris Johnson, whose 312 touches in 2012 were his fewest since his rookie season, would certainly help the offense find its rhythm. Johnson ran for 1,243 yards and six touchdowns in 2012, but averaged 60.2 yards while scoring twice over his final five games.
He seeks his first 100-yard rushing game in six tries against Pittsburgh, though he rushed for 91 yards on 19 carries in last year’s victory.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley returns to the Pittsburgh defense and safety Troy Polamalu appears to be recovered from the calf injury that cost him nine games in 2012, though James Harrison has moved on to Cincinnati.
The Steelers led the NFL with 275.8 yards allowed per game last season but forced just 20 turnovers – the eighth fewest in the league.
Tomlin named Isaac Redman the starter in their banged-up backfield despite Redman missing the final two preseason games while recovering from a neck injury. The team also cut last season’s leading rusher Jonathan Dwyer, while second-round pick Le’Veon Bell is working his way back from a sprained right foot.
“We know what Isaac is capable of,” said Tomlin, whose squad hasn’t lost a home opener since 2002. “He’s answered the bell for us in the past and we expect him to do it in a big way moving forward starting this weekend.”
Redman ran for 410 yards and two scores last year and played well in the loss to Tennessee, catching four passes for 105 yards.
The Steelers have won three straight at home over the Titans.