NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Playing the Pittsburgh Steelers the past few years came with a history lesson. It reminded the Tennessee Titans about a glorious rivalry dating back to 1970 that even survived relocation from Texas.
Not this year. Not with this coach.
Ken Whisenhunt is in his first year with Tennessee, and his memories of this series are tinged with black and gold from the six seasons he spent as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh, where he won a Super Bowl ring. Whisenhunt now has his hands full trying to turn around the Titans (2-7), who haven't reached the postseason since 2008 and last won a playoff game in January 2004.
Part of Whisenhunt's philosophy, down to scheduling practices, was influenced by his time in Pittsburgh working for Bill Cowher. So, too, his confidence that his approach will turn the Titans into winners again.
"Anytime you're around anywhere that's had a lot of success and you've had success there, you know those things work," Whisenhunt said.
"When I stand up here and say that what we're doing will work, I mean I think we took a lot of the things we'd done in Pittsburgh to Arizona and had success there. So I feel pretty strongly about it. I've learned everywhere I've been, but definitely Pittsburgh was a big piece of it."
Whisenhunt left the Steelers for Arizona following the 2006 season after interviewing for the coaching job that went to Mike Tomlin. This won't be his first game against Pittsburgh, having lost the 2009 Super Bowl to Tomlin.
When the Titans hired Whisenhunt in January, he brought with him plenty of assistants trained in the Pittsburgh way. There's Ray Horton as defensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey coaching tight ends, and linebackers coach Lou Spanos. Combined with Whisenhunt, they spent 36 years coaching with the Steelers.
Assistant defensive line coach Nick Eason won his Super Bowl ring playing against Whisenhunt in 2009. The Titans also have three players who played for Pittsburgh, led by wide receiver Nate Washington, who won two Super Bowls there. Tight end Richard Gordon was in Pittsburgh last year, while the Titans signed defensive lineman Al Woods in March.
The coaching ties don't end there. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley had that same job for Whisenhunt in Arizona in 2007 and 2008.
Horton said there will be no surprises for the Titans nor the Steelers (6-4).
"I know they have reverse passes and Ben (Roethlisberger) punts left-footed and Antonio Brown is left-handed and Le'Veon Bell loves the press," Horton said. "We can go on and on. They ran wildcat last year, and they have trick plays in the red zone. They have halfback passes. Nobody will be surprised. It comes down to who executes the best."
Whisenhunt was Roethlisberger's first offensive coordinator in the NFL. The Steelers quarterback said they butted heads then and have had a good relationship the past six or seven years.
"We text and keep in contact throughout the seasons," Roethlisberger said. "It will be special to go against him again.
These teams started playing in 1970 and went through 2001 as members of the AFC Central — highlighted by the Steelers beating the then-Houston Oilers in back-to-back AFC championship games in 1978 and 1979. The Titans beat Pittsburgh in a divisional playoff game in January 2003 on their way to the AFC championship game.
Monday night will be the seventh straight season these teams have played, splitting the past six. Tomlin said now this is simply another game on the schedule with players so young nobody remembers the old rivalry. He says he has a great deal of respect for the Titans' coaches and sees some similarities from their Pittsburgh days.
"Those shared experiences kind of shape us all," Tomlin said.
Titans players have seen a difference from their coaches that this game might mean a bit more with Pittsburgh the opponent. The Titans have lost seven of eight, so winning a game, any game, matters most.
"Without a doubt," Titans cornerback Jason McCourty said. "We've gone a while now without getting one. Why not Monday night, prime time, everybody watching?"
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