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Two defensive keys that the Steelers must employ to beat the Titans

Keith Butler’s defense has struggled for much of the season, but it must accomplish these two things to earn a win at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Entering Week 15 at 6-6-1, the Steelers have one choice: beat the 9-4 Titans or face a supremely uphill battle to the postseason.

The Titans have suffered a multiplicity of injuries this season, but Mike Vrabel’s squad is starting to get healthy at the right time. Former Steelers OLB Bud Dupree was activated off of Injured Reserve this week and is in line to play against his former squad on Sunday; also, WR Julio Jones returned vs. the Jaguars last weekend.

Even without Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown, the much-maligned Steelers defense faces a tall task vs. Tennessee. Pittsburgh’s D’s is allowing 371.3 yards per contest, 27th in the NFL and easily the franchise’s most since at least 2004. What compounds matters is that the Titans score nearly 25 points per game, whereas the Steelers average fewer than three touchdowns per game.

For much of Ben Roethlisberger’s tenure in the Steel City, Pittsburgh’s defense has been integral to the team’s success – 2021 is no different. If the Steelers want to find themselves in the thick of the postseason – and AFC North – race, Keith Butler’s group must elevate its play and avoid getting into early, detrimental holes.

For this Sunday in particular, Butler & Co. must zero in on two defensive elements to come away victorious.

Key #1: Generating Pressure

To put it mildly, the Titans’ offensive line has not performed very well this season, especially when it comes to pass protection.

Per Pro Football Focus, Tennessee has a 52.0 pass-blocking grade, which ranks 29th in the league. If PFF grades aren’t your cup of tea, how about Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate, where offensive line coach Keith Carter’s bunch slots in at 28th at 8.3%. In terms of purely sacks, Tannehill has gone down 37 times, which is the third-most in pro football.

Despite his offensive line’s struggles, Tannehill hasn’t been pressured at a tremendous rate. According to Pro Football Reference, the nine-year vet has a pressure rate of 22.8%, which is tied for 17th in the NFL.

Even though he isn’t necessarily pressured as much as one would expect, Tannehill’s play certainly dips when he is under duress. Based on PFF data, Tannehill averages five yards per attempt under pressure, a full 2.1 yards below his overall 7.1 Y/A. Moreover, Tannehill has a measly 53.4 passer rating under pressure, which is 33rd among all QBs with at least 30 drop backs in such situations – a good 45 points below his 96.9 passer rating when “kept clean.”

Against the Vikings, the Steelers’ inability to harass Kirk Cousins was one of the team’s downfalls. It is extremely important to note that Mike Tomlin’s defense was missing T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith for the vast majority of the game. While the Steelers generated 15 pressures and nine hurries, they never sacked Cousins.

The key number in this department? 16.

This year, the Steelers are a perfect 3-0 when generating 16 or more pressures; the team accomplished such a feat against Baltimore in Week 13 (33 pressures), Chicago in Week 9 (19) and Buffalo in Week 1 (30). Conversely, the Titans are 0-3 when yielding 16+ pressures.

Under the expectation that both Watt and Highsmith return, the edge rushing duo should make their mark against Taylor Lewan and David Quessenberry. Tallying multiple sacks is key, but reaching the 16-pressure threshold may be the defining factor in this game.

Key #2: Stopping Short Runs on Late Downs

In the prior section, I outlined one element of Vrabel’s contingent that is well below average. It’s now time to explore a sector that is much better than normal: the short-running game on 3rd and 4th down.

Per Football Outsiders, the Titans are 5th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) in 3rd/4th down rushing.

More specifically, Vrabel’s team excels on rushing on 3rd and 4th down between one to three yards out. On 3rd & 1-3, Tennessee averages 6.36 yards per attempt (2nd) and has collected 22 of 25 first downs (FootballDatabase.com). Likewise, on 4th & 1-3, the Titans average 4.5 Y/A (5th) and have moved the sticks on nine of 10 opportunities. By comparison, the team performs much worse when it elects to run on 3rd from much farther out (four to seven yards), averaging 5.89 Y/A (12th) and gaining first downs on just over 50% of attempts (five of nine).

Steelers fans are all too aware of the team’s porous run defense, which surrenders nearly 140 ground yards per game. Those same deficiencies apply on 3rd and short – where Pittsburgh gives up first downs at a 72.7% clip and enables 5.55 Y/A, 29th in the league – and 4th and short – in which the Steelers have given up five of eight first downs but grant 1.38 Y/A (6th).

In terms of specific guard alignments in which the Titans run, Vrabel and OC Todd Downing love to churn out yards behind LG Roger Saffold III, C Ben Jones and RG Nate Davis. Based on PFF tracking data, the Titans collected 4.4 Y/A on runs in the middle-right A gap (between Jones and Davis) against the Jaguars in Week 14, the team’s highest average yardage aside from scrambling. This theme also applies in Tennessee’s defeats vs. the Patriots – where the Titans amassed a prodigious 15 Y/A in the middle-left A gap – and against the Texans – in which Tennessee totaled 7.1 Y/A in plays run between Saffold and Jones.

The elephant in the room is that the Titans have been without Derrick Henry since Halloween due to a foot injury, so the squad’s late-down, short-yardage run success could be due to Henry still representing 53% of the Titans’ total carries despite missing five games. Even though Vrabel seems to utilize a running back-by-committee approach with D’Onta Foreman, Dontrell Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols, Downing’s strategy in running up the gut remains steadfast.

The Steelers have been anchored by Cam Heyward all season long, and that must continue on Sunday. With Montravius Adams placed on the COVID-19 list and likely missing this week’s contest, Heyward, Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk and the freshly activated Carlos Davis must stand tall and be stout in stopping dives, inside zones, duos and other attempts up the gut.