The NFL feels kinda different this year. Colin Kaepernick, objectively the league’s most recognizable player, has filed a grievance against the NFL accusing the owners of working in cahoots to blacklist him. Jerry Jones, objectively the league’s most recognizable executive, is openly feuding with NFL owners and commissioner Roger Goodell. A large contingent of the league’s upper-echelon of talent has been sidelined with season-ending injuries. The scourge of violence against women continues to suffuse the league. Players have been more outspoken and demonstrative about political and social issues, ostracizing specific pockets of the general fan base. Ratings are down. I could go on.
But let’s narrow the scope. Let’s focus on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, hoping to add some depth to their already-stacked receiving corps. What they ended up with, however, was a star-caliber player whose prodigious on-field talent is surpassed only by his gregarious off-field nature.
There’s an interesting dichotomy to JuJu. On one hand, he plays with an edge befitting of a veteran. He makes difficult, contested catches. He welcomes contact. He’s a willing blocker. He understands how to find open space. He has surmounted his perceived physical limitations—namely, his lack of straight-line speed, which likely impacted his draft stock—and emerged as one of the league’s best young receivers. Nine games into his rookie season, JuJu has 29 catches for 521 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns. Statistically, he’s the fourth-most productive “secondary receiver” in the NFL, and he doesn’t turn 21 for another two weeks.
On the other hand, JuJu’s characteristics and mannerisms provide him with an exuberance that makes him seem even younger than his age. Until recently, his primary mode of transportation was a bicycle. His go-to piece of apparel is a hoodie featuring a Minion. He maintains a Twitter profile that catalogues a myriad of Hall of Fame-worthy interactions. He has orchestrated three of the 10 best touchdown celebrations in the NFL so far this season.
From a public relations standpoint, Juju is the perfect blend of charisma and professionalism. It was like he was created in a laboratory, though his sincerity obviously radiates in a way that doesn’t come across as disingenuous or “branded”).
The city of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation as a whole has sworn fealty to young JuJu en masse. I can think of no single player who has been so universally lauded, and we are lucky to have him.
The world will get another look at JuJu Smith-Schuster this Thursday, when the Steelers (7-2) host the Tennessee Titans (6-3). Let’s get it:
A Tweet-Length Scouting Report of the Titans
The Titans, riding a four-game winning streak, look to be the contender that many pegged them to be in the preseason. As expected, the Titans have leaned heavily on their rushing attack (ranked 8th in the league in rushing offense), but Marcus Mariota, the dynamic franchise quarterback, has engineered game-winning drives in three of Tennessee’s past four wins. Also, Dick LeBeau is still there.
The Neatest Matchup: Marcus Mariota and the Titans’ run game vs. Aggressive Steelers Tacklers
As a unit, the Steelers defense have a tackling problem inasmuch as they miss several hundred of them per game. But, a defense stocked with Olympic-track-stars-turned-football-players is gonna miss some easy tackles. For example, Ryan Shazier, whose size is anything but typical for a middle linebacker, is so explosive and so athletic that he will occasionally overrun a play. He’s not alone. That’s the tradeoff for going light on that side of the ball.
Pittsburgh’s proclivity for failing to fill run lanes, overrunning said run lanes or missing tackles altogether could be their downfall this Thursday, because the Titans offense is constructed to exploit poor management decisions.
You see, while the Steelers spearheaded the “getting more athletic on defense” movement, the Titans, ever the traditionalists, decided to go big on offense. They signed Demarco Murray to lead the rushing attack and drafted Derrick Henry, a bank vault with 4.5 speed, to serve as the backup. Tennessee’s offensive line, meanwhile, is 1,600 collective pounds of road-paving man beef. The sheer size of Tennessee’s running backs and front five could wear down Pittsburgh’s defense in a hurry, much like Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars did in Week 5.
But the Steelers should be most concerned with Mariota and the looming threat of designed zone reads or post-breakdown scrambles. As Pittsburgh demonstrated against the Bears in a Week-3 loss, they have issues defending misdirection runs, which is largely attributable to the propensity of defenders to attack potential running lanes without compunction. Mariota, whose rushing figures have been negatively impacted by a Week 4 hamstring injury, is coming off his most productive game of the season, and it stands to reason that he will take whatever the Steelers give him. If two or three Steelers take themselves out of the play by over-committing to a running lane or taking too wide of a sack angle, the remaining members of the defense could find themselves in a footrace with Mariota.
Second Neatest Matched: Quintessential Dick vs. Pittsburgh’s offense
Tennessee’s defense is pretty “meh.” They’re pretty good against the run (ranked 6th), but mostly average against the pass (ranked 19th) and they surrender a lot of points (23 of them per game, to be exact). Those aren’t figures that will keep Todd Haley awake at night.
What should concern the Steelers is the presence of Dick LeBeau on Tennessee’s sideline. None of this is to say that LeBeau, a longtime coordinator for the Steelers and pioneer of the zone blitz, has indispensable inside secrets that will ultimately doom the Steelers (then again, who knows). Maybe ol’ Dick has been meticulously hoarding old playbooks from his time in Pittsburgh. I bet he knows the Steelers are going to run a double-reverse for Martavis Bryant in the first half.
An important storyline: Secondary resiliency
Last week, I included a similar storyline about Pittsburgh’s secondary. After a game in which they allowed Matthew Stafford to amass 423 yards of passing yardage, I was very interested to see how they would go about cutting that down against a less talented passing attack. But for the first 33 minutes of last Sunday’s game against the Colts, the Steelers made Jacoby Brissett, who is essentially cannon fodder for outside linebackers, look like Joe Montana. Brissett connected on like 12 of his first 15 passes, including a pair of 60-yard touchdowns. With Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell having left the game with leg injuries, the remaining 27 minutes didn’t look super-promising. This grim outlook was shortlived, as the Steelers permitted Brissett to connect on only three passes for the remainder of the game. What we’re saying is that Artie Burns, Coty Sensabaugh, Robert Golden, and Sean Davis are the second coming of the Legion of Boom. Tennessee is averaging a little over 200 passing yards per game and Mariota’s interception numbers are up, so LOB 2.0 could feast in omnivorous fashion.
Three random things
- Kevin Byard, who’s leading the league in interceptions and pass deflections, is the best safety you’ve never heard of.
- Tennessee is actively working to expand Adoree’ Jackson’s role in the offense. Jackson, a kick returner by trade and defensive back by title, had three carries for 30 yards against Cincinnati last week, so it stands to reason that the Titans will work to get him a handful of offensive snaps once again.
- Every team in the NFL should be forced to roster a two- or three-way player. Remember last year when Dontari Poe threw a touchdown pass? That was so, so amazing.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Titans 22
Never bet on the outcome of a Thursday night game. These games are chaos.
With that said, Ben tends to elevate his play at Heinz Field, giving the Steelers a tangible home-field advantage. Some of the computers are predicting a 31-10 Steelers win, which is ridiculous and demonstrates why I have exactly zero concerns about computer overlords ultimately enslaving the human race. Because these are the Steelers, I feel like they’ll win, but not by enough to cover the spread (-7). Jerks.