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Some stats to help predict the Week 7 game between the Steelers and Titans

A statistical comparison between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans prior to the Week 7 showdown.

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Before Pittsburgh Steelers games, I always wind up pouring over stats, trying to see if I can discover a clue about the upcoming contest. Unfortunately a lot of pre-game comparisons, which often line up the same units, don’t seem to reveal much. Ryan Tannehill and Ben Roethlisberger, for example, don’t actually play against each other. Comparing their numbers might be interesting, but it’s not going to teach much about how they’ll play on Sunday.

Instead, I’ve tried to pull together some comparisons of opposing units for the upcoming game. I’m interested in both the raw numbers and the league ranking (which will help contextualize what we’re seeing). Some of these charts will suggest a “strength vs weakness” scenario, which indicates a real advantage for the stronger squad. Others depict “strength vs strength,” the outcome of which is much harder to predict.

The Steelers and Titans ground games are good examples of this phenomenon. (Note: the columns listed as # indicate league ranking.)

Steelers rushing offense vs Titans rushing defense

Rushing Yds. # YPC # TDs #
Rushing Yds. # YPC # TDs #
Pitt Off. 136.8 9 4.3 13 1.4 11
Tenn Def. 137.0 26 5.1 31 0.8 6
Yards and TDs are “per game” Source: Pro Football Reference

Notice that these numbers line up pretty evenly, which might seem like these units are evenly matched. However, those league rankings tell a different story. Looking at both, it’s clear that Steelers are a decent-to-good rushing team, while the Titans are a bad rushing defense. This matchup appears to favor the Steelers, and we shouldn’t be surprised if Pittsburgh has a better day than usual on the ground.

Titans rushing offense vs Steelers rushing defense

Rushing Yds. # YPC # TDs #
Rushing Yds. # YPC # TDs #
Tenn Off. 157.8 5 4.8 9 1.4 11
Pitt Def. 66.2 2 3.3 2 0.6 5
Yards and TDs are “per game” Source: Pro Football Reference

When the Titans run the ball, their average yards are wildly different from the Steelers yards allowed, suggesting that we’re in for a heavyweight bout: strength against strength, iron against iron. It’s much harder to guess what we can expect in this case.

So what more to we know? Well, the Steelers keyed on Saquon Barkley in week one, and stonewalled the talented runner to 6 yards on 15 carries. More recently, they shut down the Cleveland Browns #1 rushing attack last week (though, in fairness, an early deficit forced Cleveland to pass more than they’d planned). Derrick Henry, meanwhile, led the league in rushing last season for Tennessee, and nearly carried the team into the Super Bowl. He is currently in first place again, on a blistering pace through five weeks. Then again, he has yet to play a defense ranked in the top 12 in rushing this year, and has been inconsistent in his output. For example, in his last two contests, Henry mauled the Texans (the worst rush defense in football) for 212 yards, but managed only 57 yards (on 19 carries) against the Buffalo Bills, who are ranked 25th.

The eye test says to be wary of Derrick Henry, and that’s probably smart. but the numbers ought to reassure Steelers fans just a little.

So how about the rest of the units:

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Steelers Passing Offense vs Titans Passing Defense

. Comp. % # YPG # YPA # TDs # INTs # Scks # Rating #
. Comp. % # YPG # YPA # TDs # INTs # Scks # Rating #
Pitts Off 69.3 7 221.2 24 7.1 20 2.2 9 0.2 1 1.6 7 109.1 6
Tenn Def 66.1 20 272.8 28 7.5 17 2.6 27 1.2 11 1.4 28 98.3 21
TDs, INTs, and Sacks are “per game” Source: Pro Football Reference

In most areas, the Steelers O and the Titans D are numerically matched, which (just like with rushing) suggests an advantage for Pittsburgh.

A good place to see this is in the Sacks column. Ben Roethlisberger is being sacked this season 1.6 times per game, while the Titans defense gets to opposing quarterbacks 1.4 times per contest. By the numbers, we might guess that Ben’s going to get dropped one or two times, just like both teams’ typical Sunday afternoon. But again, adding in the league rankings—which show the Steelers in the top tier in this area, and the Titans fourth from the bottom—it seems more likely that Pittsburgh’s line will protect Big Ben even better than normal this week. (For a little added evidence, consider that the Steelers have protected Ben pretty well this season despite their five opponents all ranking in the top 12 in sacks. Conversely, the Titans have struggled to get to the quarterback despite their five opponents all ranking in the bottom 12 of the league in protecting their quarterbacks.) We’re talking about a clear Steelers strength vs a clear Titans weakness.

Does that mean the Titans can’t sack Big Ben Sunday? Nope. But if you’re looking for reasons to be nervous, “how will Ben handle the Titans pass rush?” probably isn’t worth your time.

Examined in that way, most categories above appear advantageous for the Steelers. The notable exception is in interceptions thrown, where Ben it tied for first in the NFL (among qualifying passers), and the Titans are on the edge of the top 10. Ben has been extraordinarily careful with the football this season; his ball security will be an important factor in this game.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans

Titans Passing Offense vs Steelers Pass Defense

. Comp. % # YPG # YPA # TDs # INTs # Scks # Rating #
. Comp. % # YPG # YPA # TDs # INTs # Scks # Rating #
Tenn Off 69.9 6 264.2 11 7.9 9 2.6 5 0.4 4 1.2 2 113.5 3
Pitts Def 58.5 2 219.0 8 7.4 16 1.8 12 1.6 3 4.8 1 79.6 3
TDs, INTs, and Sacks are “per game” Source: Pro Football Reference

When the Titans have the ball, the story turns again, as most passing categories suggest strength against strength.

The most interesting number on this chart, to me, is again in the “Sacks” column, where the Steelers lead the league and are currently on an absurd, record-shattering pace, while Tennessee is second in the NFL in protecting Ryan Tannehill and have only seen him dropped six times total this season. Since so much of the Steelers’ defense is predicated on pressuring the quarterback, it seems like a key matchup Sunday will feature the Steelers pass rush vs the Titans protection.

What can we expect? Let’s look a little further:

Advanced Pass Defense

. Sacks /gm # QB hits /gm # Hurries /gm # Pressure % #
. Sacks /gm # QB hits /gm # Hurries /gm # Pressure % #
Tenn Off 1.2 2 3.8 26 3.0 10 21.0 16
Pitt Def. 4.8 1 4.0 5 7.2 1 39.4 1
Pressure % is defined as (QB hits + Hurries + Sacks) per dropback Source: Pro Football Reference

These numbers describe a Titans team that is decent (though hardly excellent) at protecting its quarterback. It seems like it’s not his protection that’s keeping his jersey clean, but rather that Tannehill is mobile, smart, and experienced — he can handle pressure and knows how to avoid a sack. But, as the numbers also show, he’s never faced a pass rush as fierce as these Steelers.

In other words, this chart suggests that the real battle will not be between the Steelers pass rush and the Titans’ protection, and more about that stampeding pass rush vs the poise of Ryan Tannehill. If Tannehill can deliver under the relentless pressure of the Steelers, the Titans gain a pretty remarkable advantage. But with this defense, that’s a gigantic IF.

What about the overall game? Below is the average drive for the Steelers offense and the Titans defense:

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Average Drive: Steelers Offense vs Titans D

. Drive: plays # Drive: yards # Drive: TOP # Drive: Pts. # 3rd % # RZ % # Points / gm #
. Drive: plays # Drive: yards # Drive: TOP # Drive: Pts. # 3rd % # RZ % # Points / gm #
Pitt Off 6.0 23 31.2 23 2:56 9 2.6 8 45.9 10 63.2 18 31.2 4
Tenn Def 6.5 26 39.1 28 2:57 25 2.5 20 57.8 32 87.5 32 25.2 15
Drive numbers indicate “per drive” Source: Pro Football Reference

Over and over, the Steelers offense appears really evenly matched against the Titans D. Almost to the number. But there are two entries here that jump off the page: Tennessee’s 3rd down conversions allowed, and their Red Zone touchdowns per attempt, in which the Titans are the worst team in football in both categories.

The Steelers aren’t world-beaters in either area, but they appear to have a real advantage in both. And, as they showed against Cleveland last week (converting three 4th and short attempts), this team is becoming a very tough team on those short yardage situations.

NFL: NOV 16 Titans at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire

Average Drive: Titans Offense vs Steelers Defense

. Drive: plays # Drive: yards # Drive: TOP # Drive: Pts. # 3rd % # RZ % # Points /gm #
. Drive: plays # Drive: yards # Drive: TOP # Drive: Pts. # 3rd % # RZ % # Points /gm #
Tenn Off 6.7 5 39.5 4 2:50 15 3.2 1 48.3 6 78.3 3 32.8 2
Pitt Def 5.3 1 25.3 2 2:23 1 1.7 3 42.6 16 61.5 13 18.8 3
Drive numbers indicate “per drive” Source: Pro Football Reference

This is turning into a trend, as the Steelers D and Titans O will run strength against strength all day. The biggest discrepancy on this chart puts the Steelers at a disadvantage in the same ways the Titans were above: 3rd down conversions and Red Zone touchdowns.

That said, Pittsburgh has made a concerted effort to clean up those third downs, and after an ugly Eagles game, they dominated the down against the Browns. Otherwise, this is mostly an even fight.

So what did this add up to? The Steelers offense matches up very well against the Titans’ mediocre defense, and ought to have a good day. Pittsburgh’s offense scored 31 points last week against Cleveland, despite only amassing 277 total yards. In other words, they were capable of a lot more (and the Titans’ D is not as strong as the Browns).

Going the other direction, I think this game comes down to two questions:

1 - Which Derrick Henry will show up against Pittsburgh? The unstoppable bowling ball that shattered the Texans, or the ineffective slogger that struggled against the Bills? The Steelers are the best run defense the Titans have faced this year by a huge margin. If Henry can be stopped (and he can) the Steelers are likely to be the team to do it.

2 - Can Ryan Tannehill keep his cool against the Steelers’ spectacular pressure? Pittsburgh brings it from all sides; if they can put him on the ground a few times, confuse him, or force him out of his rhythm, Tennessee will have a long day. If Tannehill can keep poised and pick apart the Steelers’ shorthanded defense (minus Devin Bush and possibly Mike Hilton), we’ll have a very different game on our hands.

5-0 vs 5-0 is a rare fight. I’ll make no predictions about the final, but I like Pittsburgh’s odds.

Go Steelers.