8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Steelers -7, Over/Under: 43.5
It’s a long-awaited reunion at Heinz Field, as the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Tennessee Titans in a matchup featuring a pair of division leaders, with the latter bringing fabled Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau back to Western Pennsylvania. A trendy pick to win the AFC South this season, it was mildly surprising when the Titans (6-3, t-1st in AFC South) got off to a 2-3 start to the campaign, but have since rounded into shape, winning each of their last four games. While they haven’t been blowing anyone out, Mike Mularkey’s charges can look at it from the perspective that they’ve clearly learned how to win close games, which is a necessity for every young team with designs on greater things. With the exception of a 36-22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, their last three wins against the likes of the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, and Cincinnati Bengals came by a cumulative margin of ten points, or in other words, a little more than a Field Goal (3.33 P/G). When we last them, Tennessee managed to withstand a late rally from the Bengals, putting together an impressive 12-Play, 73-Yard Final Drive that culminated in a 7-Yard Touchdown Reception from DeMarco Murray (109 CAR, 433 YDS, 4 TD) courtesy of Marcus Mariota (62.1%, 222.9 Y/G, 6.55 NY/A, 7 TD, 6 INT) that chewed up all but Thirty-Six Seconds left in the game. As they’ve been all year, the hosts were very balanced, racking up 416 Total Yards and Twenty-Seven First Downs, with 180 Rushing Yards on Thirty-Six Carries, led by the triumvirate of the aforementioned Mariota (6 CAR, 51 YDS), Murray (14 CAR, 42 YDS, 2 TD), and Derrick Henry (11 CAR, 52 YDS). The absolutely OWNED Time of Possession, holding the ball for over Forty Minutes of game time, as the visiting side simply couldn’t prevent them from manufacturing drive after drive, converting an efficient 7-of-15 Third Downs. In an era of wide-open passing attacks, the Titans are a throwback to days of old, built from the inside out, with a punishing ground game made possible by arguably the best young Offensive Line in the league. The Front Office has done a tremendous job putting this group together with Tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin likely to be fixtures at the Pro Bowl, with Quinten Spain moving bodies likes rag dolls in the trenches. With that said, the Running Game hasn’t been as consistent as it was in years past, despite it’s lofty ranking (7th Overall, 124.8 Y/G), with various injuries to Mariota playing a large role in their success; in their nine outings thus far, Tennessee has been held under 100 Yards Rushing five times, but when they’ve breached that threshold, they’ve torn the wall down, averaging a whopping 180.5 in the other four affairs. It’s also no coincidence that when they’re successful moving the chains on the ground, they’re also far more successful throwing downfield, with Play-Action factoring heavily into Mularkey’s Gameplan. Management made a point to improve the Receiving Corps during the Offseason, with the addition of Eric Decker (28 REC, 266 YDS, 1 TD) coupled with the selection of Corey Davis (5th Overall) meat to flesh the passing game out, though injuries to the latter caused him to miss five straight games at one point. With all that said, success on the ground also has a positive effect on the Defense, which is helmed by the aforementioned LeBeau, who in his third year with the franchise has molded this unit into one that resembles those he oversaw in Pittsburgh for so many years. Of course, the 80-Year Old Hall of Famer masterminded their Defense in two separate stints from 1992 to 2996 and most recently from 2004 to 2014, the latter a period in which the Steelers advanced to three Super Bowls, winning a pair (2005 and 2008). After getting torched earlier in the season, the few Defenses have been stouter than the Titans’, who over the last six weeks have relegated the opposition to 17.4 Points on a scant 281.6 Total Yards, snuffing out the run (75.4 Y/G), and forcing Ten Turnovers. With the exception of two big plays (a 37-Yard TD followed by a 70-Yard Bomb), the Bengals were rendered largely inert, compiling 308 Yards, while converting just 1-of-10 Third Downs. Sophomore Free Safety Kevin Byard (51 TKL, 6 INT, 12 PD, 1 FR) has been a revelation for a vastly improved Secondary, reeling in an NFL-best Six Interceptions, with five coming in his last three games alone.
Meanwhile, also winners of four straight outings, the Steelers (7-2, 1st in AFC North) are beginning to look like the cream of the crop in the AFC, even if they’ve quite reached that level that so many had expected coming into the season. The issue here, is that while finding ways to win games, Pittsburgh isn’t blowing anyone out, due in large part to a consistently inconsistent Offense, which ahs caused them to win ugly in many cases. When you can field the likes of Ben Roethlisberger (61.1%, 255.3 Y/G, 7.01 NY/A, 12 TD, 10 INT), Le’Veon Bell (220 CAR, 840 YDS, 5 TD), and Antonio Brown (60 REC, 882 YDS, 3 TD) on the field all at the same time, it’s not outrageous to expect fireworks, but for a variety of reasons, Independence remains on the horizon for this group. Despite totaling 391.8 Yards of Offense during their current run, Mike Tomlin’s charges have only managed to score 22.0 Points per Game, while posting more than twenty points just once. The problem here, is that these guys have been curiously abysmal in the Red Zone, with a Touchdown Percentage of barely 40.0%, which ranks among the lowest in the league. However, last weekend’s 20-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts was simply a case of a team that got off to very slow start. The visiting Steelers fell behind early, and trailed 17-3 early in the Third Quarter before the managed to finally get things going. Their first five Drives of the afternoon earned them only Thirty-Six Yards, with an Interception followed by a succession of Four Punts. Thankfully, they Roethlisberger and Co. figured it out after Halftime, manufacturing the kind of 8-Play, 78-Yard Drive that culminated with 7-Yard Touchdown Pass to Juju Smith-Schuster (29 REC, 529 YDS, 5 TD) to cut the lead to Seven Points. After a pair of Drives ended with Punts, the visitors took advantage of an Interception, and tied the game with another Roethlisberger Touchdown. With an opportunity to pull ahead on the following Drive, Chris Boswell missed a 37-Yard Field Goal, only to redeem himself minutes later, after Pittsburgh rallied from their own 15-Yard Line, traveling Seventy Yards in Nine Plays, as Boswell calmly booted the ball through the posts from Thirty-Three Yards out. By the end of the affair, Roethlisberger was a solid 19-of-31 for 236 Yards, Two Touchdowns, and an Interception, while Bell filed the stat sheet with 112 All-Purpose Yards on Thirty-One total Touches, though it was Smith-Schuster who made the plays in the Passing Game, hauling in Five Receptions for Ninety-Seven Yards and a score. With all that said, the silver lining for Tomlin and his troops has been a familiar one for this franchise, and that’s their Defense, which has been the best Defense in the league that nobody seems to talk about. You would think that with a team steeped in such defensive tradition as Pittsburgh has been, their Defense would get more love than this particular incarnation, which has pulled them from the proverbial fire time and time again, while their more heralded teammates on the opposite side of the ball continue to sort out their issues in the Red Zone. One the season, these guys rank Second Overall in both Points Allowed (16.4) and Total Defense (284.5), while proving very difficult to pass the ball against, yielding just 181.8 Yards (2nd Overall) through the air on 5.2 Net Yards per Attempt (2nd Overall), permitting as many Touchdowns (Eight) as they’ve snared Interceptions. Furthermore, they’re getting to the Quarterback with startling frequency, amassing Twenty-Nine Sacks thus far (T-2nd Overall), with eleven different players getting in on the party, led by Vince Williams (46 TKL, 5.0 SK) and Cameron Heyward (29 TKL, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR), who have notched Five Sacks apiece. Management has invested heavily in this side of the ball for many years now, and it finally appears that all those Draft Picks are bearing fruit, with Speed and Athleticism found on all three levels of the Defense. After giving up a pair of 60-Yard Touchdowns, this unit really clamped down on Indianapolis in the Second Half, allowing a mere Nineteen Yards over the course of their final Five Drives. We’d imagine that LeBeau is going to approve of what he sees in his return tonight.
Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Titans 17