By Daniel Benjamin
After playing the majority of the first half of the season’s games on the road, the Pittsburgh Steelers open up a two-week stretch of home games at Heinz Field by hosting the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night. In fact, out of the Steelers’ remaining seven games this regular season, only two are road games.
Pittsburgh (7-2) has won four straight games after eking out a 20-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday. With the win, the Steelers increased their lead in the AFC North and kept pace with the New England Patriots, who hammered Denver late Sunday night, for the top spot in the AFC playoff race.
Tennessee (6-3) has also won four in a row after feasting on AFC North opponents. The game against the Steelers marks the fourth straight AFC North opponent the Titans have faced.
This will be the 15th meeting between the former AFC division foes this century and 78th all-time. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 45-32, though Tennessee has won two of the last three games. The Steelers are 4-2 against the Titans at Heinz Field.
Titans on Offense
Tennessee is averaging 22.3 points a game, which ranks 13th in the league. The Titans are 18th in total offense (328.7), 27th in passing (203.9) and seventh in rushing (124.8).
Marcus Mariota is one of the most dangerous dual threat quarterbacks in the league, as he can beat you with his arm and legs. Mariota has been good—though not great—this year. He has been better over the last four weeks, however, he did struggle against the Bengals.
The Titans have one of the best running back duos in the league with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Murray can run and catch the ball out of the backfield while Henry is mainly used as a ball carrier. Murray, who has one 100-yard rushing game, leads the team with 48.1 yards a game. Henry has produced 45.4 yards a game and has two games of 90-plus yards.
The Titans’ biggest problem offensively this year has been the inconsistent play of their wide receivers. Tight end Delanie Walker, who is dealing with ankle and wrist injuries, leads the team with 43 receptions. He has 22 catches over the last four games.
Titans on Defense
Defensively, Tennessee has been very good since its Week 4 thrashing at the hands of the Houston Texans. Following the horrific performance against the Texans where the Titans defense gave up 43 points and 445 yards of total offense, they’ve only allowed 60 points over the last five games.
Tennessee is coming off a solid performance on the defensive side of the ball against Cincinnati, holding the Bengals to 306 total yards of offense. The Titans forced two Bengals turnovers and recorded four sacks.
Overall, Tennessee is allowing the 23rd most points a game at 23.3, though the offense has given up three defensive touchdowns so that number is a little skewed. The Titans also rank 16th in total yards (328.3), 19th in passing yards (236.4) and 6th in rushing yards (91.9).
The Titans have permitted only one quarterback, Russell Wilson, to surpass the 300-yard mark. No running back has topped the 100-yard plateau on the ground.
Linebacker Derrick Morgan has more than a third of the Titans’ 14 sacks. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (3) and linebacker Brian Orapko (2.5) are the others who have multiple sacks.
Players to watch: Wide Receiver Corey Davis and Safety Kevin Byard
The Steelers’ only weakness on defense has been their propensity to give up big plays via the air. The Steelers have allowed the third fewest receptions this year, but 23 of the 171 passes caught (13.4%) by their opponents have gone for 20-plus yards, including four of 40-plus yards. Davis, the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft, is a big target who is quick and capable of breaking tackles. The 6-foot-3, 209 pound receiver missed six games with a hamstring injury, but has showed some ability in the games he has played in and seems to have developed a rapport with Mariota. Davis has 13 catches on the season for 149 yards, with three of the receptions going for 19 or more yards.
Tennessee has given up 206 receptions to opposing pass catchers, which is the ninth most in the league. However, the Titans have permitted just 19 plays of 20 or more yards with only two going for at least 40 yards. A big reason for that is the play of free safety Kevin Byard. Byard leads the league with six interceptions and has broken up 12 passes, which is the 12th most in the league. He also has 51 tackles.
Outlook Steelers 20, Titans 17
This game is going to a dogfight and a key battle in the AFC playoff race. While it looks like Pittsburgh is going to run away with its division title, Tennessee is battling Jacksonville (6-3) for supremacy in the AFC South.
If the Steelers don’t fix their issues on offense, they could be in trouble. Plus, it doesn’t help that the game is on a Thursday night, three games after each team battled in close, hard-fought games.