The Tennessee Titans (6-3) are currently tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3) for first place in the AFC South Division. But beyond the two teams’ matching win-loss records, it’s difficult to find other similarities. And like the proverbial “box of chocolates,” it’s even more difficult to predict exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to get following the Thursday night kickoff at Heinz Field.
The first Titans’ statistic to leap from the page is their point differential of minus-8 through nine regular-season games (205 points scored vs. 213 points surrendered). Besides raising the logical question of how on earth this team could be 6-3 on the season, the stat seems to suggest Tennessee might not be quite on a par with the Jaguars and their plus-92 point differential. But then you look at the Titans’ 21-point victory over Jacksonville in Week 2 and it becomes clear that this is a team built to confound statisticians.
Like the Steelers, Tennessee has been blessed with a schedule enabling them to compile a solid record despite scarcely playing their best football through the first nine games of the season. Also like Pittsburgh, the Titans have had an embarrassing, blowout loss (57-14 to the Houston Texans in Week 4), a too-close-for-comfort win over the hapless Cleveland Browns (12-9 in Week 7) and they’re currently riding a 4-game winning streak. In the interest of full disclosure, though, those 4-straight Tennessee wins came against a rogue’s gallery of NFL teams including the Indianapolis Colts (ahem!), Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, grabbed two of its four consecutive wins against the more-competitive Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions.
But because neither Pittsburgh nor Tennessee has played consistent football for extended periods this season, something’s definitely got to give when these two teams face off in the Steel City. The Titans’ talented Marcus Mariota is still learning the ropes as an NFL quarterback, so it’s no stretch to assume that Ben Roethlisberger has a higher ceiling of performance—at least for the remainder of this season—despite the fact he’s seldom reached it so far. But beyond this substantial QB-experience advantage, Big Ben and Mariota are quite evenly matched in terms of their current total quarterback ratings (Mariota ranks No. 12 with a 57.6 total QBR, while Ben ranks No. 14 with a 56.3 total QBR).
What will it take for the Steelers to solve this gridiron riddle also known as the Tennessee Titans—a team commanding such potent magic that they can lead their division while being outscored by their opponents? Let’s have a look at the 3 Keys to Victory:
Key No. 1: Bring the A-team offense to Heinz Field (and this time make sure they get off of the bus).
Pittsburgh has a very good, relatively young and top-ranked defense. But as we noticed again on Sunday during the third quarter with the Black-and-gold down by a 17-3 score, this defense doesn’t yet have the experience to carry the team on its back without Big Ben and the offense also playing their part. For example, the Steelers’ Week-5 collapse in the second half against Jacksonville was aided and abetted by an offense that simply didn’t put enough points on the board throughout the game. To make matters worse, they kept turning the ball over to the Jaguars.
Not only in Thursday’s matchup with Tennessee—but for the remainder of this season—Pittsburgh’s lethargic offense must shake off their cobwebs and start playing complete games. It seems doubtful that the Steelers will be able to extend their record to 8-2 if the offense repeats Sunday’s performance—an outing where they managed only about one quarter of solid football.
For their part, the Titans have scored more than 30 points in three of their nine games so far, including 37 points against Jacksonville, 36 points against the Colts and 33 points against Seattle. This means Pittsburgh definitely will need the A-team offense to show up, because 20 points won’t likely win this matchup (unless the ground crew at Heinz Field neglects to cover the playing surface, causing punted pigskins not to bounce but, instead, embed themselves in the gooey turf).
Key No. 2: Steelers’ defense must hound and contain Mariota
We don’t need a memory to recall what Jacoby Brissett did to the Steelers’ secondary through more than half of Sunday’s game. On each of the Colts’ long scoring passes, Brissett had ample time in the pocket to launch deep balls downfield. Despite their success in harassing Brissett for most of the second half, Pittsburgh’s pass rush didn’t get anywhere close to him on those two monster plays.
To grab a win against Tennessee, the Steelers’ defense not only needs to pressure Mariota, but also contain him when he runs out of the pocket. He’s already done this for a total of 181 yards so far this season, currently ranking as the Titans’ third leading rusher.
Key No. 3: Le’Veon Bell must be the catalyst
Todd Haley and Big Ben need to find a way to better exploit Bell’s capabilities as a receiver. It should be obvious by now that the first order of business for the defenses of every Steelers’ opponent is to limit Bell’s rushing yardage. So far this season, and despite Bell’s league-leading yardage stat, opponents have done a pretty good job of shaving down No. 26’s production. Because nobody truly wants to tackle him in the open field, maybe that’s exactly where Bell ought to be targeted more frequently.
Tennessee remains an enigma among NFL teams with its brassy 6-3 record while, at the same time, ranking no better than 16th in team defense and 22nd in team offense. There’s definitely something about this team which simply doesn’t translate via statistics—and that “something” most likely is an intense will to compete and win, particularly in close games. We might not have the best fix on exactly what makes these Titans tick but, if Pittsburgh aims to reach 8-2 this week, they’ll definitely have a fight on their hands to get there.