If this feels like deja-vu, it is. I initially wrote this report for the week four matchup between these teams that was scuttled due to Tennessee’s COVID outbreak. Three weeks later, not much has changed. Both teams remain undefeated. The Steelers are still an elite defense and a diverse offense that can beat opponents in a variety of ways. The Titans are still a physical football team with a running back, Derrick Henry, who treats defenders like a drunken Dad rampaging through a backyard football contest at a six year-old’s birthday party.
You want the big piece of cake, kid? Eat this!
While the Steelers and Titans are two of just three remaining undefeated teams in the league (Seattle is the other), questions surround each franchise. Each team has one impressive win on its resume. The Steelers routed an improved Cleveland team last week while Tennessee rocked a solid Buffalo squad in week five. The combined record of Pittsburgh’s other four opponents, however, is 5-17-1. The Titans, meanwhile, have been living dangerously all season. They won their opener 16-14 at Denver on a last-second field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski. They edged Jacksonville 33-30 by intercepting a Gardner Minshew throw as the Jags were driving for a game-tying field goal. They knocked off Minnesota 31-30 when Gostkowski nailed a 55 yarder with under two minutes to play. And last week, they needed overtime to defeat a struggling Houston team. Both the Steelers and Titans have been impressive. And both, at times, have looked ordinary.
The key to the Titans offense is their run game, which centers on the aforementioned Henry. The 6’3-240 pounder is on target for some ludicrous numbers this season. Henry has touted the rock 123 times already for 588 yards. Over sixteen games, his current pace would produce 394 carries for 1,881 yards. Whether Henry can stay healthy or sustain that pace remains to be seen. The NFL record for most rushes in a season is 416 by Kansas City’s Larry Johnson in 2006. Johnson never rushed for 1,000 yards again after that ‘06 campaign and was out of the league three years later. Whether Tennessee will burn Henry out is a question for another day. For now, he’s the engine that makes their offense go.
Defensively, it’s a different story for the Titans. They were solid against Buffalo, yielding just 16 points while generating three turnovers. In their other four contests, Tennessee surrendered 27.5 points and 420 yards per game while producing just five turnovers and six sacks. They have been abysmal on 3rd downs, allowing opponents to convert 37 of 64 opportunities for a 57.8 success rate. If Tennessee can’t rush the passer well, can’t generate turnovers and can’t get off the field on third down, they may be in for a long afternoon against the Steelers.
Finally, each team is dealing with a significant injury heading into the contest. Pittsburgh linebacker Devin Bush and Tennessee Pro Bowl offensive tackle Taylor Lewan were both lost for the season to ACL injuries last week. Each player filled a huge role for their team. Bush was Pittsburgh’s signal caller on defense and their most versatile linebacker. Lewan was the best lineman on one of the best rushing units in the league. How each team compensates for their respective absences will be an important factor in the matchup.
What else will it take for the Steelers to win? Here are some other keys to victory in the game against the Titans.
Defend Tennessee’s tight ends in pass coverage
Stopping Henry is the most obvious key for the Steelers’ defense. It’s likely, though, that Henry will get his 25-30 touches and pile up some yards. He’s too good, and too important to Tennessee’s offense, for the Steelers to stifle completely. The defense can’t let Henry run wild, of course. But if they hold him in the neighborhood of 100 yards they will have done their job.
The bigger key is limiting how Tennessee supplements Henry’s running. One way they do so is by throwing to their tight ends. Tennessee’s tight ends have a combined 41 receptions for 443 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Fourth-year pro Jonnu Smith is the best of them, with a stat line of 19-234-5 TDs thus far. The fact the Steelers will likely play a lot of base 3-4 to defend Henry, and that Bush’s absence leaves a potential coverage void against the tight end passing game, is cause for concern.
Below, we see an example of how the Titans scheme to get the ball to Smith. This is Tennessee’s opening play from scrimmage against the Jaguars. They are in 21 personnel and present a clear run look to the defense. Jacksonville, in response, stacks nine players in the box. The Titans do not run the ball, however. They execute a nicely designed play-action pass instead, with the line blocking left, quarterback Ryan Tannehill booting out to his right and then throwing the ball back to Smith (circled in the photo):
Smith sells the run nicely by staying on his block long enough to get lost in the mess of bodies at the line of scrimmage before leaking out up the left sideline, where he is wide open. It’s a great drive-starter for the Titans and it takes advantage of the fact that defenses will often over-compensate in their efforts to stop Henry.
Tennessee came back to Smith to finish the drive, aligning him to the inside of a bunch set to ensure he’d draw a safety or linebacker in man coverage. He got 6’0 Andrew Wingard, for whom the 6’3-250 pound Smith was a tough match-up. Smith ran a bender route, starting outside to open Wingard’s hips before working back across his face:
Wingard covered the play fairly well but gave up the post on Smith’s break. This let Smith box him out like a basketball player positioning for a rebound. Tannehill placed the ball in a great spot where Smith could go up and get it and the big tight end made a nice catch for the touchdown:
In all likelihood, Pittsburgh will look to defend the tight ends out of their base 3-4 with heavy doses of Terrell Edmunds. Edmunds has done a nice job in man coverage so far this season. When the Steelers play zone, however, a linebacker like Robert Spillane or, perhaps, Ulysses Gilbert III, who has not yet played a snap this season, will be asked fill the void left by Bush’s absence.
Spillane afforded himself well when he stepped in for Bush last week against Cleveland. Here’s what BTSC’s Geoffrey Benedict had to say about his performance:
“His strength is against short zone passing, where he is actually quite good, and in an attacking ‘Buck’ role in run defense. I think he is better against the pass than against the run, and he seems to be REALLY good against slip passes that are big against an aggressive blitzing defense like ours.”
Geoffrey’s comments about Spillane are encouraging, especially since some of the routes he mentioned are typically manned by tight ends. The Steelers will have to pressure Tannehill when they play zone to help Spillane, or whomever is tasked with occupying Bush’s role, on deeper routes up the seam. Pittsburgh’s 24 sacks are the most in the league while Tennessee has yielded just six (tied for second-fewest). Something will have to give.
All of this sets up an interesting chess match between defensive coordinator Keith Butler and Tennessee’s offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. I know little about Smith, who is in his second year calling plays for the Titans. But I do know Tennessee is second in the league in points per game (32.8), which suggests Smith is doing a fine job. And I know he was their tight ends coach prior to becoming OC, which suggests he will search for ways to get them the football. The winner of this particular chess match may determine the winner of the contest in general.
Continue to mix things up with the offensive play-calling
When this article posted in its original form three weeks ago, I lauded the Steelers for the balance in their offensive play-calling. That balance has continued. After throwing the football nearly 70% of the time with Roethlisberger in 2017 and 2018, Pittsburgh’s pass/run ratio is at 51/49 through five games this season.
While running the ball for the sake of running is not necessarily productive, Pittsburgh has been better on the ground than in recent years. The Steelers are averaging 136.8 rushing yards per contest this season, up from 90.4 last year, 90.3 in 2018 and 104.2 in 2017. Their rushing attempts have increased, which is a factor in the increased yardage totals. But, excluding kneel-downs, their yards-per-attempt are up as well (4.5 this year, as opposed to 3.7, 4.2 and 3.8 the three preceding years).
Whether offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has sought this balance by design or if he’s simply taking what defenses are giving him is hard to know. The Steelers have been throwing the ball early and, with consistent leads in the second half, running it late to close out games. Whatever the design, it’s been effective. The Steelers are averaging 36 yards-per-drive this season, which is twelve yards-per-drive more than last year and comparable to the dynamic offenses from 2017 (37 ypd) and 2018 (35 ypd) that finished in the top 10 in most categories.
Pittsburgh’s points-per-drive total is up, too. The Steelers are averaging 2.70 points-per-drive at present, which is up significantly from last season (1.47) and better than their 2017 (2.27) and 2018 (2.32) campaigns. They are also fourth in the league in scoring (31.2 points per game). If the Steelers can maintain these metrics, they will win a lot of football games.
There are reasons beyond balance the offense has found early success, of course. Limited sacks and turnovers and an offensive line that has held up surprisingly well despite injuries and adjustments has helped. But so has running the football well and not having to rely on Ben Roethlisberger to carry the team each week. Roethlisberger has been good, perhaps surprisingly-so given his age and return from surgery. But the Steelers have helped him by being more diverse than in recent years.
They should continue this trend against a Tennessee defense that has not stopped the run or the pass particularly well. The Titans are yielding 410 yards per game, which ranks 26th in the NFL. That breaks down to 273 yards passing (28th in the league) and 137 rushing (26th), making them susceptible in both areas. Their DVOA ranking is slightly better (22nd) but still puts them in the bottom third among league defenses. A diversified attack that makes the Titans defend the entire field and takes what they are giving seems a wise approach for Pittsburgh’s offense.
If the Steelers can maintain their balance on offense and defend Tennessee’s tight ends on defense (while not letting Derrick Henry run completely wild), it should be a good day for the black-and-gold in Nashville.